February 26th, 2013

World Press Hits Pellegrin with Wet Noodle (And Other Contest Scandals)

Last week, debate erupted over an image Paolo Pellegrin had entered as part of a portfolio that won prizes at both the World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International competitions. He had apparently cribbed his captions from the New York Times, misidentified the subject of the photo in question, and while he didn’t exactly set up the photo–he arguably created what appears to be a documentary photograph of a tough guy brandishing a gun in a bad neighborhood.

As BagNews Notes first reported, Pellegrin had asked the subject, a college student and the friend of his fixer, to pose for portraits at a local shooting range. The subject, Shane Keller, told PDN Pulse that as he walked to his car with the gun, Pellegrin took advantage of the harsh light in the gritty-looking parking garage to make a picture for a larger story about the underside of Rochester, New York.

Today, World Press photo organizers issued a statement that said, “The jury is of the opinion that although a more complete and accurate introduction and captions should have been made available by the photographer, the jury was not fundamentally mislead by the picture in the story or the caption that was included with it.”

Officially, POYi has so far remained silent about the image, although one juror told PDN last week that he was “satisfied by Paolo Pellegrin’s explanation” about the image.

The big photojournalism competitions are supposed to be about celebrating great work and top talent, but this year’s contests have been overshadowed somewhat by charges of manipulation and the ensuing debate over what crosses ethical lines.

What ends up getting disqualified, and what ends up doing real harm, are arguably not always the same thing.

The White House News Photographer’s Association just rescinded Washington Post photographer Tracy Woodward’s Award of Excellence in the Sports Feature/Reaction category of The Eyes of History competition. WHNPA said it rescinded the award because “digital manipulation that was in violation of the contest rules.” Woodward had cleaned up background distractions in the image, which showed a high school wrestler celebrating after a match victory. NPPA reported the incident in detail on its Web site yesterday.

Meanwhile, debate about the Pellegrin image continues to simmer. Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke posted a sharp critique of Pellegrin’s actions yesterday. “This controversy is no longer about poor, misleading or ‘lifted’ captions,” Jarecke wrote. “This is now about a self-proclaimed ‘documentary’ photographer who manipulates people and uses them as props to illustrate a story narrative he’s made up in his head. I thought these issues had been worked out by now. You don’t use people for props. You don’t manipulate them into doing things they aren’t doing and you don’t ask them to pose for you and then pretend it’s a situation that you’ve happened upon.”

Anticipating an onslaught by Pellegrin’s many defenders, Jarecke concludes his post: “Sling your rocks and arrows below. Please don’t hesitate to remind me that I’m old and outdated, and thus have no idea what I’m talking about.”

There was also some controversy early last week about the World Press Photo of the Year winner, an image showing  a parade of mourners carrying the dead bodies of two children in Gaza. The image was shot by Paul Hansen of the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. Some critics took him to task for the dark toning he applied to the image before he entered it in the World Press Photo competition. The version originally published by Dagens Nyheter had lighter tone and slightly different cropping.

WPP photo jury chair Santiago Lyon told Jim Estrin of The New York Times Lens Blog that the jury had examined the image for post processing and decided that Hansen’s photo was “within the acceptable industry parameters.” He added: “Everybody has different standards about these sorts of things, but as a group we felt that it was O.K.”

That didn’t stop the hand wringing, but at the time, it was all that armchair ethicists had to work with. Through the lens of the more recent controversy, what Hansen did now seems quaint and, if not forgiven, at least forgotten.