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Thursday, 26 February 2015

Sex in Car Parks and the World Press Photo Disqualification Season

     Bath: The deathbed of ambition where Londoners go to die

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.


Unknown said...

Colin, lots of interesting points in your discussion, and I hope people will focus on the key point which we share: "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." As I tried to argue in my article that you begin with, that "truth value" can't be sustained by traditional discourses of truth and objectivity - it needs a shift to understanding what some images do rather than what they are.

But one point I want to be definite about which I think is lost in your post - my article from Tuesday is written personally, and I am speaking for no one but myself. It is not about WPP or any contest categories. I made that crystal clear in the piece itself. For two and a bit weeks per year - at least for 2014 and 2015 - I have been Secretary to the WPP General Jury. In the week after the awards were announced I spoke publicly as Secretary when issues of the process came up, and this year that involved manipulation. But that job is done, and as I stated, I now no longer speak for anyone but myself.

colin pantall said...

Thanks David - yes, I think that the interesting thing is the way in which we take pictures to be true, often without even knowing that it's happening. We need to know how images work - the 'what they do'.

I understand that the points that you make are your personal view, but at the same time I think they do apply to the world press photo and especially the latest little controversy - the Charleroi pictures - where that interchange between staged, genre and truthfulness plays out.

But it's me that is doing that, and making those connections, not you. Mainly because the connections are begging to be made - and the timing of your post along with various other hubbubs unintentionally links those ideas you express to the WPP.

For which the rules seem quite clear as far as I can see and far more transparent than they have ever been. Are you going to insert a clause where disqualified pictures can be shown? Or is that unnecessary do you think?

Unknown said...

Thanks Colin. I think the Charleroi issue is fascinating and I wish I could enter debate fully. Even though I am not WPP employee, and only Secretary for short period, and now write only personally, because that story is an issue that has emerged out of this year's judging process I oversee while Secretary, it is not something I can comment on sadly. I hope there is a widespread debate about the themes your raise. The only thing I would say about it is, if we looked at the history of photojournalism overall rather than any particular contest, the queue of people wanting to contest their visual representation would be very long.

Re your last two questions on the WPP rules: the organisation decides policy and writes the rules, and that is not part of the Secretary's role, so I can't offer a substantive response.

Simone Sapienza said...

Even "The Americans" wasn't accepted by the optimistic American politics, so published first in France.

Even R. Frank has become that R. Frank thanks to the break of rules. And now everyone does "his" reportage.

And we could say the same for colour photography about before/after Eggleston.

I do think that more rules you have, less competitors you'll have. And that's why reporter don't want welcome new sides of photojournalism.

And the same for workshop, courses, portfolio review. Wider it is, more difficult will be to keep going all this capitalistic orchestra that makes money and credibility for all that people that stage the truth.

Oh yeah - cos straight photography doesn't lie. Right Jens Liebchen?

Simone Sapienza said...

What I don't get is this statement by WPP in November 2014 where they deny staging, posing and re-enacting.


colin pantall said...

Charleroi is fascinating and full of contested meanings.

As you suggest, Simone, the staging element is crucial here, but though the rules are pretty clear on image manipulation, I don't think they are as clear on the kind of staging evident in the Charleroi series.

It feels wrong - mostly because of the captioning of the sex in car image, even though it is not a 'false' caption.

Yes, I was thinking of Stereotypes of War as well. In fact I saw a project that looked exactly like Stereotypes of war the other day - from the Ukraine I think. Absolute spitting image.

Unknown said...

I'm trying not to get drawn into the specifics of WPP or the contest because once the period of being Secretary has passed I do not speak in any official capacity.

But I have to respond to Simone Sapienza's second comment about what she calls "this statement by WPP in November 2014 where they deny staging, posing and re-enacting."

What she calls "a statement" is in fact a research report on how media organisations around the world think about manipulation. I was commissioned to do it last year as a contracted research consultant with a set terms of reference.

The purpose of the report is clear in on p. 3:

"The purpose of this research is to record, as comprehensively as possible, along what lines members of the photojournalism community are thinking about the issue of manipulation, and how they deal with it. The research was NOT designed to impose or recommend standards that organisations should adopt, rather to record those standards that organisations might currently hold or practice. The purpose of this report is twofold: to encourage industry debate on the integrity of the image, and to inform World Press Photo of issues relating to manipulation that are relevant to its annual contest. "

It is, therefore, not a statement the organisation made, and it is certainly not a set of new rules for either media organisations or the contest.

colin pantall said...

It's quite clear in some ways - there are the technical issues (and the examples aren't good enough and there should be examples from the actual prize.... ad infinitum - but they are clear-ish).

And then there's the other manipulation - which is never going to be clear-ish and alot of it is going to come out after the event - as with the Charleroi series - which is beginning to look rather Gothic such were the feats of imagination employed in the captioning.

So there's a rule for WPP - no Gothic captioning.

Anonymous said...

I have a difficult time understanding that you're after, Colin. To start with the secondary issue, my understanding is that the group is interested in photographs being presented as captured, so technical restrictions on masking, etc. seem perfectly reasonable. I have no quibbles there. Are you arguing that a different technical standard should be used?

As for the primary issue, of subjectivity and editorialization, I'm still not sure what you desire. It seems that you're arguing that because photography is inherently "made" and subjective, the only way to proceed is to jettison the photographic relationship with "objective" reality, thereby assenting to any subjective interpretation of a place, whether or not it bears any resemblance to that place (or person, etc). That, to me, seems patently indefensible as journalism, although defensible as "art photography."

For what it's worth, I think that the Charleroi series would work as a specific expression of various subcultures, but it's misleading and unethical (lying?) to present it as Charleroi or Muslim life, etc. To use the "doing" language from above, these photographs create misunderstanding regarding totalities, but produce emotional reactions to disconnected facets of the communities in the place. Really, the severe editorial choices mean that photographer's vision is nearly the only thing we learn about the place. (Of course, that also means that the booster photography of the city is also not "Charleroi.")

colin pantall said...

Er no - I'm arguing that the technical questions are really relatively straightforward - and can be made even more straightforward.

What I'm saying is that the photographic relationship with 'reality' is selective, arbitrary and flawed with a reliance on indeterminate philosophies with indeterminate methodologies.

A firming up of what constitutes the 'reality' that is misrepresented is required - through the ways in which that reality is actually presented.

So for Charleroi the question is to ask how the pictures were made, how the pictures were captioned, how they were edited and so on. Many of the pictures are generic (medicpation, running cops, women with head on desk)... so that also kicks in.

Channeling reality and truth into specific points on how, where, why of picture making might make things more clear.

colin pantall said...

...and I think the other thing that I am saying is that there is an equivalent between the generic artifices of much photojournalism and that of what are more recognised as 'staged' projects - but we accept them because that is what photojournalism looks like.

But at the same time it hides a multitude of sins - see Simone's suggestion of Stereotypes of War as an example of this. And then check off photojournalistic projects against it to see the percentage of visual correspondence. If it's too high, then sorry, but there's no rigour in there whatsoever.

So yes, rigour is required in all areas when it comes to journalism - as you suggest. In complete agreement there.