Awards, Commercial Work

The Importance of Memory and World Press Photo’s “Contemporary Issues”

“The struggle of man against power is the act of memory against forgetting.”
-Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I have my own personal reasons for choosing to photograph over other mediums, for believing that we must look sometimes even when we are more often compelled not to. The collective memory of societies around the world relies on aesthetics, whether represented through flags, leaders, advertising and propaganda or news photographs. Only the last can claim to attempt to accurately reflect the conditions of all citizens but especially the disenfranchised, even if so often the focus is on podiums and the powerful.

Earlier this month, World Press Photo announced the results of its annual competition. Shortly thereafter, the mayor of the Belgian city of Charleroi sent the Amsterdam-based foundation a letter stating his objections to an essay entitled “Dark Heart of Europe” that depicted his town as some sort of desolate sex-depraved locale where fetish and fantasy were expressions of current realities. Many of the scenes in the photographs were simply staged through a variety of means. The mayor of Charleroi had a point, citing how a picture of a couple fornicating in their car had been labeled two different things in the caption submitted to World Press Photo and on the photographer’s own website where he made no bones about the fact that the subject was his cousin.

The instructions for the contemporary issues category as put forth by World Press Photo indicate that the work is “documentary” rather than a conceptual interaction between a photographer and time and space. In theory and in practice, documentary is not a word used to describe scenes in which you ask family, such as cousins, lovers, friends or fixers and others in your employ to act as props and set things up for you as they might occur in real life. Documentary means waiting for it to occur in real life.

It is not simply about aesthetics but about the portrayal of what is in front of our lens as it is in front of our lens. Not too many years ago, a photographer was fired from The New York Times in Pakistan for asking a member of the Taliban who owned a Kalashnikov to pose with it. a retraction was issued after a photograph appeared in The New York Times from Pakistan where a member of the Taliban had been asked to pose with a Kalashnikov that was not his. More recently, one of AP’s rising stars was let go and publicly disgraced after removing a colleague’s video camera from the corner of the frame of a rebel fighter in post-processing. Worst of all was the story of a man who paid a woman to dig up her child for a story about child sacrifice.

Now I have to ask, why? Why were these promising careers put on hold or placed on a different shelf? Surely the child was dead and had been buried once, so why not again? Rebels run in Syria and Pakistani Taliban members own Kalashnikovs. What of the morality of these acts of deception?

The recent very public deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto are only the latest reminder of the peril faced by journalists around the globe. There are too many amazing journalists around the world behind bars, under threat, being sued into oblivion, or who have already been silenced by bullets, mortars, an executioner’s blade.

I feel obliged here to mention two. Anja Niedringhaus died when she was assassinated by an Afghan police officer last year. Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter in Azerbaijan, was the subject of sexual blackmail by her government and is currently facing a lengthy jail term on trumped up charges.

As a photographer who has spent my adult life doing this work, the effects of these combined assaults and abuse must be channeled into a certain motivating force or else one succumbs to despair. Interestingly, the source of despair does not rest with the general public that is often mislabeled as stupid and treated to a continuous onslaught of stupid in the form of lowest common denominator “journalism” or listicles or cats or Kardashians that allegedly “break the internet” at every turn. Yet when an exhibit opens or an interesting lecture occurs, the public, so belittled by this constant onslaught of stupid turn up in droves on the coldest, most frigid days of the year, hungry for something real that is not manufactured advertorial oversight deemed palatable for the masses.

So then why do the gatekeepers and managers of this profession seem to feel otherwise? I know budgets are bad but there is powerful work still being produced despite it all. This is by no means to call out every gatekeeper, editor, manager, middle manager, etc., as there are a fair number who are dedicated and never forget who they are truly working for – and no, not just themselves – but their numbers are perhaps dwindling. Something is happening that I cannot explain, a malaise or crisis of truth. Such jobs have their own struggles and feelings of powerlessness that extend to the power that comes with the job. I appreciate those who spend the long hours and possess the skill it takes to bring together work captured in corners both near and distant.

But where is the sense of shared responsibility? Clearly the problem extends beyond the media and into the realm of Washington policy makers at the highest levels who, at least in the U.S., have their own accounting to do for how hostages have been handled in recent times. As much as young freelancers feel that no one has their back, is it too the case that the managerial/gate keeper class of this profession feels similarly? I do not have an answer.

Why is it at a time when freelancer safety is making headlines around the world has the manager class of this profession found a panel discussion (or rather, endless panel discussions) and a cocktail party fête announcing new “freelance guidelines” at Columbia Journalism School an acceptable answer to this problem? Who are these guidelines for if people hiring freelancers and stringers in the field are unaware of what their organizations attached their names to at Columbia Journalism? And with zero additional funds attached, it is no wonder only a handful of very young, seemingly quite green journalists think this makes any difference or will matter in any way. While many are appreciative of the efforts to get major news organizations committed to better standards, this effort looks like little more than just words with little application beyond the paper in which they were written.

Several organizations already give generously to support institutions like the Rory Peck Trust and I can only ask they give more. The BBC helped offset the cost of my hazardous environment training in 2008. Training bursaries for freelancers to obtain safety training or Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), founded by Sebastian Junger after the death of his close friend and colleague, Tim Hetherington who died alongside Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros in Misrata, Libya in 2011, do important, necessary work. This is not just about saving lives, though, this is about ensuring independent information flows from the world’s battlefields and dark corners to policy makers, diplomats, politicians and businessmen who require our work to have a better understanding of the world we all inhabit.

Regardless, more needs to be given financially to these efforts because it is not only individual safety that is on the line, the safety of the future of this profession is at stake as those who have strong feelings about duty of care head for the exits. If a 28-year old freelance photographer named Cengiz Yar can organize to raise over $1,000 for RISC at a Chicago bar on a frigid February night, then others can surely do much, much more.

But to return to World Press Photo and their decision to let staged photographs stand, there is less hope there, as money alone cannot be thrown at the crisis on hand. The problem now is that one of the great guardians of documentary photography and the profession calling itself photojournalism must show a certain willingness to make an abrupt U-turn, something the organization has so far been unwilling to do.

In explaining the decision to uphold the awarding of a first place in “Contemporary Issues” to the photographer, Giovanni Troilo, World Press director Lars Boering asked TIME’s Olivier Laurent a very simple question he seems struggling, remarkably, to answer: “What is staging?” I have never met Boering, but I do know Laurent to be thorough, respectful and measured always. I have no idea what he was thinking when he was asked this by Boering at this time, but he did fire off a series of Tweets suggesting the problem World Press Photo had on its hands was like “an octopus with 46 tentacles”. “My brain is about to explode – trying to make sense of the World Press Photo debacle,” he wrote in a separate Tweet.

This has happened before and it will happen again. One of the things I find most bizarre about this incident is that I find myself on the side of a politician, in this case the Mayor of Charleroi, Belgium, over some of the most esteemed names in my profession on the decision to uphold a documentary award to these clearly staged photographs. The award is now irrelevant and secondary to the question, “What is staging?” The effect of asking this question in this context is lobotomizing. We know what staging is, but we are being asked to forget we ever had memory or clarity on this point. The struggle of memory against forgetting should not be a fight that needs to be fought on this front, not when the next generation is already struggling for its mortality.

Donate to the Rory Peck Trust
Donate to Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC)
Donate to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

(NOTE OF ADDENDUM on March 4, 2015: World Press Photo has rescinded the award after photographers Bruno Stevens and Thomas Van Den Driessche investigated the images thoroughly and learned that not only were the captions outlandish but one of the photographs submitted was not even taken in Charleroi, Belgium but instead in Molenbeek, Brussels. After sharing this information with World Press Photo, the organization confronted the photographer. World Press Photo wrote in a statement, “Troilo confirmed over telephone and email that the image had not been taken in Charleroi, contrary to what he submitted to the contest. This falsified information is a violation of the 2015 Photo Contest entry rules.” The statement however does not go so far as Visa Pour L’image director Jean Francois Leroy who yesterday canceled World Press Photo’s annual exhibit at his festival, photojournalism’s most prestigious, with the simple words that I wish World Press Photo had uttered in the first instance: “The photojournalists we want to represent do not call upon their cousins to fornicate in a car.” He also apologized to the other award winning photographers who have done some outstanding work for this form of collective punishment, “What a paradox it is not to be able to present their work, even though we would have been delighted, and very proud to do so.”)