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POYi Conclusion

photo by Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photos

First Place: Photographer of the Year - Freelance / Agency
Second Place: Issue Reporting Picture Story - Freelance / Agency

With regards to the following article and comments:
"When Reality isn't Dramatic Enough: Misrepresentation in World Press and Picture of the Year Winning Photo"
by Michael Shaw, BagNews on February 22, 2013

POYi Conclusion

The spirit of Pictures of the Year International is to honor photojournalists and celebrate their outstanding documentary photography. We do not probe for reasons to disqualify work. POY understands that errors may occur in captions submitted by photographers. We are happy to make corrections and acknowledge the errors. Story summaries and captions are “published” when posted on the POY website. Any misunderstanding regarding self-authorship for “published” captions or story summaries will be corrected by the photographer. POY affirms the awards.

Statement from Paolo Pellegrin

I'm sorry that Michael Shaw, Loret Steinberg and Shane Keller don't like my pictures from Rochester. It's not uncommon for people living in a community to disagree with an outsider's take. We all know that. They find my work "heavy handed." I found many of the things I witnessed in Rochester shocking. Part of a documentary photographer's job is sometimes revealing things that local elites would rather not have discussed quite so openly. In my experience, it was particularly true in Rochester that certain portions of the population were disinclined to have an open conversation about race, poverty and crime.

Shane doesn't like the caption of the portrait I made of him. (He does acknowledge, however, that this picture was a portrait, and I've never indicated otherwise.) Here is the caption for that picture: "Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon." Shane agrees that he is a former Marine and that he is standing with his weapon in Rochester. My firm recollection is that Shane described himself that day as a sniper. He may have misspoken; I may have misunderstood; or he may have used the word "sniper" in a manner that was not meant to imply formal status as a Marine Corps Sniper (he spoke for a long time about sniping). In any event, if Shane was not actually a Sniper in the Marine Corps the caption should be changed to read "Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine Corps member with his weapon."

Shane also points out that I took his portrait. This is true, and his account of how we were introduced by Brett, who was assisting me, is also substantially accurate. I had been spending the majority of my time riding along with the Rochester police in the Crescent and otherwise interacting with the community there. I approached the work through a combination of reportage, portraiture, and even landscapes. I also realized that to tell more fully the story of gun violence in Rochester, as exemplified by what I was seeing in the Crescent, I wanted to make some portraits of gun aficionados. Like any journalist, I worked with my assistant to locate such people, and Shane was one of the people we located. I think his portrait, and even his reaction to it, add an interesting dimension to the story. Shane thinks he and his guns have nothing to do with the violence in the Crescent; I disagree. (For what it's worth, there is no firm agreement in Rochester as to what constitutes the "Crescent;" it sometimes seems to be a conceptual designation as much as a geographical one. I actually didn't know where precisely Brett had driven me to meet Shane, which is one of the reasons I captioned the picture simply, "Rochester.")

I have no idea why Shaw et al. appear to think there is something wrong with making a portrait, or that making a portrait is not "authentic". As photojournalists, we make portraits all the time. Are my portraits from Gaza any less "authentic" because they're portraits? Of course not. It's ridiculous.

There is one element of the Bag News Notes story that is worthy of discussion in the face of a changing photojournalistic landscape, however: The relationship between my captions, such as, "Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon," and the background text about the story that accompanies them. Traditionally, when photographers like me produced work freelance, our agencies - in my case, Magnum - would distribute the photographs to publications with a background or "distro" text and a series of captions. The captions were meant for publication; the distro text was for editors, who, if they took the work, would assign a writer to produce a text that would accompany the captioned pictures.

In Rochester, I produced the work directly as part of a collaborative, freelance project with a number of my colleagues, and the work ended up winning awards without ever having been mediated by the English-language press. (Some of the work did appear in Zeit in Germany, although Shane's picture did not.) Thus, my photo captions are accompanied on the World Press Photo and POYi sites by the kind of background text that ordinarily would not be published. (Zeit, for instance, didn't publish it.) This distinction between captions and background information is, in my mind, quite important.

My picture captions are my authored work, based on my individual work in the field, and I stand fully behind them. (If a small correction sometimes needs to be made -- like clarifying that Shane was a Marine but not a sniper in the Marine Corps -- so be it

The background text, which traditionally would be for internal uses, and not for the public, is something I gathered from various sources in Rochester and from the internet, including the New York Times. Factual background sentences like, "The Crescent is home to 27 percent of the city's residents and 80 percent of the city's homicides" are frequently repeated in the neighborhoods I was working in; I believe I first encountered the statement in connection with the House of Mercy and the amazing Sister Grace, with whom I spent a considerable amount of time. (The sentence is on House of Mercy's facebook page, for instance.) I confirmed my background information in various interviews with the Rochester police, the House of Mercy, and many others - but that doesn't change the fact that it was intended as background information, i.e., the starting point for someone else's authored work. I'm a photographer, and I produced a body of photographic work.

Looking at the presentation on the World Press Photo and POYi sites, I do regret the formulation, "where these pictures were taken" in the background text in relation to Shane's picture. Shane's picture is not captioned the Crescent, and I wouldn't have captioned it the Crescent, because I wasn't sure it was taken there (as stated above: I wasn't sure exactly where in Rochester Brett had driven me to meet Shane). I captioned the picture "Rochester, NY, USA." But the juxtaposition with the background text is confusing and should be fixed. The story is about the Crescent, and I continue to believe that Shane's picture tells an important part of the story about Rochester, guns, and gun violence (whether Shane agrees or not), but I don't want there to be any confusion. For purposes of clarity, I don't have any problem with the picture itself, how it was made, or its inclusion in my story.

One final thought: Neither Shaw, Steinberg nor Keller ever attempted to contact me. They do not quote Brett, anyone in the Crescent, the police officers I spent so much time with, etc. It seems somewhat strange to me that while mounting a purported journalistic high horse they themselves did not follow the basic tenets of fair and professional journalism.

Statement from Michael Shaw

While we welcome any ongoing discussion of blogging vs. journalism ethics in general, in the context of the ethical issues regarding Paolo Pellegrin’s photos, we can’t help but feel – and I say this with all due respect – that the focus on contacting the photographer prior to publication is missing the larger point. And, as Mr. Pellegrin has responded in interviews with the NPAA, The New York Times, and PDN, this line of inquiry seems less relevant.

This is not a fight between a photographer and a blog. We are not reporters. While it is easy for the photojournalism establishment to tag us with a requirement to give Mr. Pellegrin a chance to respond in the name of objectivity, I do believe that’s because they fundamentally misunderstand our mission: subjective analysis. Not dishonest analysis, but a subjectively analytical argument as to what is behind the photograph. As Northwestern University Communications Professor and BagNews contributor Robert Hariman put it, “How does one report without being a reporter …Scientists, business people, consultants, and citizens, among others, report all the time without being employed as reporters. Likewise, journalism awards have been won by people who don't self-identify as journalists. Blogging blurs genres and occupational categories alike…”

Does the presence of accusation present its own “blur” and suddenly imbue upon us a duty to get Mr. Pellegrin’s side of the story? It is understandable that many think so. But we are not a newspaper and not an award organization. Photographers have weighed in on our opinions about their photographs in the comments on our site. They have written us and we have given them space to respond. We’ve have always encouraged that. Had we contacted Mr. Pellegrin, it clearly would have made some people more comfortable, but again, the so-called objectivity of the press is not our job. We are a blog. A well-respected one, but a blog nonetheless.

That being said, we do realize that contacting Mr. Pellegrin would have prevented contact from becoming the issue and focused the community on the substantive nature of the post. In an age in which context, narrative, aesthetics and technique are on the minds of many, these are important issues that affect the entire field and study of photojournalism. This discussion needs to take place via exchange and debate that is not prosecutorial in tone and gives space to all voices. To the extent we didn’t allow that to happen through tone or narrow focus or zealousness, we would have done it a different way. The issues the post raised, however, are still vital and it is incumbent on photographers, publications, editors, academics, bloggers and photo contests not to be distracted from this important discussion.

It was never our goal to hurt Mr. Pellegrin’s career or his entry in POY or WPP. Our intent was to look behind the photographs to encourage critical thinking and analysis. Do we think the entire controversy portends the need for a larger, more open discussion? Yes, we do. And we would welcome POY’s participation in that process. Until then, it is discouraging that this has become about us and the ethics of journalism rather than the ethics ofphotojournalism. Nonetheless, we stand by the content of our post and encourage all photojournalists and related organizations to focus on the important issues contained therein.



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