Oh gosh, it's World Press Photo Disqualification Complaints Season again. This happens every year but at least there seems to be a nearing to some clarity on why various unseen pictures were disqualified. David Campbell put this post up on Tuesday, and this echoes these examples from 2014 of what could be disqualified. Absolutely no cloning or healing brush seems to be the answer ( except for cleaning up dust and scratches). No painting, or excessive masking The bottom line is nothing should be added and nothing taken away (or even concealed).
But then entrants also got disqualified for making their picture 'too dark' (excessive toning) or did I imagine that. In which case, what entrants from the past would be disqualified for excessive dodging or burning, or retouching for that matter - the examples on Campbell's website show relatively minor retouching in places and surely that level of retouching must have happened on many occasions.
There are numerous digital tools aimed at detecting manipulation on images - and this points to guidelines on manipulation that are more, not less, rigorous than those in the analogue darkroom days. It seems counterintuitive but winners did not need to show a negative back in the day. Now raw files are mandatory once you hit the shortlist and you will get found out. So in some ways, the rules are more transparent than they were in the past. Or maybe that's because in the past there were no rules.
Campbell points out that perhaps there needs to be a re-evaluation of what constitutes truth in an image, in the cultural sense. These are some of the questions he thinks we should consider.
(and please note that these are Campbell's personal views that are not connected to the World Press Photo. This is me linking his thoughts to the World Press Photo )
How travel to a photographic location was enabled and funded raises a series of questions. Once on location, the composition and framing of scenes necessarily involves choices that shape representations. The editing, selection, tagging, and captioning of images for potential publication adds more layers of decision. Which images are then distributed to media clients for purchase, and how those clients present, sequence and contextualise those images, is another realm of creative choice that shapes the representation of events and issues. As David Levi Strauss has observed, “the truth is that every photograph or digital image is manipulated, aesthetically and politically, when it is made and when it is distributed.”
It's all constructed in this view. Everything is staged, but despite this, we need to consider what constitutes a 'document'. Despite this, Campbell recognises there are different standards for images that aim to 'entertain or please us.'
For them, we can have more relaxed standards. However, if we want some pictures to be able to function as documents and evidence, we have to ensure certain things so those pictures can function as documents and evidence.
I think that those standards are already extremely relaxed and that the World Press Photo consists of images that do 'entertain and please us' in disparate generic ways - photographic genre is at the heart of the World Press let's not forget - and it's to its credit that it has extended the generic possibilities in recent years. But maybe this generic/entertainment centre is part of the problem. Both the fact that it is at the heart of many categories (maybe more than we care to imagine) and the fact that we don't like to recognise it.
But Campbell sees this and thinks that:
We need to focus on the process of photography rather than just its products, and consider the issue in terms of what images do rather than what images are...
I think, following Ariella Azoulay, we also need to understand an image as being one statement in a larger regime of statements, so that we dispense with the idea that pictures alone can testify to all they show. Images can be powerful documents and evidence, but they require other statements, other information, to be truly effective.
So as well as verifying the relationship between the camera and the subject, there's the production and the dissemination of the picture stories to consider - captioning, sequencing, layout and juxtaposition all matter and all need to be considered. As is who funds the work, who publishes the work, who funds the publication and who advertises as Campbell points out.
It's a darn tricky menu of verification especially considering the venality of the owners of most newspapers, magazines and online sites. Ethics are easily overruled in all kinds of ways by even the most superficially respectable of publications. The party line is there to be toed - and now that you have a global ownership of media with shared interests that line does tend to be a one-party line.
So what would be interesting is if someone kind of humourles smile-free press overseer was seconded to the World Press Committee to judge on the places where the winning work was published, consider how it was published and then left free to disqualify that which was not deemed worthy along the holistic lines that Campbell mentions above. But then everything would be disqualified and you'd end up with no winners. You wouldn't even be able to have a bathroom break (as the paraphrased saying goes) so stringent would the ethical considerations be; humourless, smile-free ethicists-over-us are tiresome to put it mildly so let's scrub that idea.
Anyway, the other question is that of the poetic interpretation. The latest controversy to hit the World Press Photo Winner is the Charleroi letter. Italian photographer, Giovanni Troilo won the Contemporary Issues prize for his portrayal of Charleroi as some post-apocalyptic Belgian wasteland where Bladerunner meets Coronation Street with a dose of Pulp Fiction thrown in. It comes complete with heavy lighting and a bit of creative staging. One picture is of a couple having sex in a car park, which has this caption for the World Press Photo: “Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons.”
Sad to say, the photographer put this caption on his website: "My cousin accepted to be portrayed while fornicating with a girl in his friend’s car. For them it was not strange.” But still, that doesn't contradict the world press caption. But the car lights are on so you can see inside which is not quite the way it should be.
The mayor of Charleroi didn't like the work. This is what he said
Troilo’s work should be reevaluated, the mayor concluded. “Charleroi is not, on any account, the black heart of Europe,” Magnette writes. “You will not find one single inhabitant who will recognize his city in these pictures, not to mention the captions that look more like a settling of scores than a reportage.”
But isn't that true of just about every photo essay of anywhere. It's a selective rendering. I'll happily take Bath as a timeless Georgian toytown of elegant crescents and high tea at the pump rooms. Or I'll take it as a city funded by dirty thug-money with a piece of prime real estate that wouldn't look out of place in Ceasescu's Romania. Or I'll take it as muggy valley swampland, the death bed of ambition, a kind of elephant's graveyard where people from London come to die. And many more things.
But for Charleroi, if you can't take Troilo's work, then you shouldn't take the equally fantastical pieces that might have pumped up the city over the years and have appeared not just in city advertorials but also in serious publications around the world. There's not too many of these pieces around I guess, it is Charleroi after all, but I bet there are some.
Campbell also says this covers the more creative possibilities or personal interpretations such as Troilo's vision of Charleroi.. He talks about:
...the exhausted, incoherent and unsustainable position that photography could be objective and true, which is a commitment still so strong we see traces of it every time an image’s status is questioned.
And that is something we need rules on. It is the biggest cliche to say that photography is staged or photography is real. Most people flick between the two visions depending on what side of bed they get out of bed in the morning. Only those in serious denial about either the world or their own independence of thought stick solidly to one interpretation. Yes, we know that pictures are staged, but they still have a huge truth value that is absolutely central to how and why they are made and understood. They belong to that wider regime of statements and we do see them and take them as fact at a very basic level without even realising it; in photojournalism, in documentary, in advertising, in family albums, on phone apps, everywhere. We know it's nonsense but we're not smart enough to not feel that it's nonsense. Maybe because it's not nonsense after all.
And the problem is the ways in which we take pictures as true do matter - and are both far simpler and far more sophisticated than the Platonic, Kantian, semiotic, psycho-analytic, aura-centred, authenticity-based, existentialist, intertextual interpretations that we tend to look at them through in photographic theory god help us.
I'm currently writing about Lina Hashim for the BJP and her Unlawful Meetings work is a case in point. Hashim negotiates that difficult area where what people think, what they say and what they do - and how that affects her multiple identities. It's work made in very difficult f circumstances, but it is work that acts as evidence. It shows young muslims having sex in cars. And as such it shows that young muslims do have sex. And that is visual evidence that goes against the rather stupid rhetoric of lots of people. It makes something visible. And within the context of that 'larger regime of statements' it is accepted as truth.
So today, for me, as I write about Hashim, photography is truth. That's the side of bed I got out of this morning.