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February 27, 2013

BagNewsNotes Response to World Press and POY Pellegrin Decisions, Controversy Overall

In eight years, there is hardly an instance in which we have published a post without an image, as that’s our focus. Below are our thoughts about the World Press and POY decision yesterday, but more significantly, our reaction to this controversy and our role in it almost a week later. The response below is an adapted version of a requested reply to Picture of the Year, their specific questions stated off-the-record.

We were pleased to see World Press Photo and POY took note of our original post to the extent Mr. Pellegrin’s caption misrepresented the photo subject. We are glad they have replaced the caption even if they chose not to address other problems of designation and description as well as the larger ethical issues.

In the context of those ethical issues regarding Paolo Pellegrin’s photos, we can’t help but feel that the concentration on BagNewsNotes, and the focus on contacting the photographer prior to publication, is missing the larger point. And, as Mr. Pellegrin has now responded in interviews with the NPPAThe New York Times, and PDN, this line of inquiry seems less relevant.

This is not an argument 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, we 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 BagNewsNotes 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 us with 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 we are 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 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 eliminated contact from being the issue and focused the community on the substantive nature of the post. In an age in which industry ethics 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, narrowness of focus or zealousness, we would have done it a different way. The issues the post raised are still vital, however, and it is incumbent on publications, editors, academics, photographers, 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 WPP or Picture of the Year. 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 are impressed with the high caliber of discussion our post has engendered. Still, it is discouraging to the extent this has become about BagNewsNotes and the ethics of journalism rather than about the ethics of photojournalism. Nonetheless, we stand by the content of our post and encourage all photojournalists and related organizations to focus on the important issues contained therein.

Update: The title of this post and the first paragraph have been edited to include the POY update this morning. Here is the page POY also created with the Rochester Crescent photo and statements from Paolo and BagNewsNotes.

Update 2 (2/28/13): Although it only addresses the story summary and the misrepresentation of Mr. Keller as far as the caption goes, we believe it’s a positive step to see POY director, Rick Shaw, recognize captions and story summaries “to the level of published work,” and to also learn in the same Lens Blog interview that new language about self-authorship and accuracy will be added to the contest rules next year.

  • duckrabbit

    Dear BagNewsNotes,

    I am disapointed by the defensiveness of this post (see you can’t win).

    Would your investigation have held more weight if Pellegrin’s voice had been included? Yes. Does that mean you were wrong not to contact him? No. Has Pellegrin been able to respond? Yes. Many times, in many different places.

    Will people percieve his work differently now? Yes. Is that a good thing? Yes, because they will have a deeper understanding of the way his pictures might be constructed. Is this part of BagNewsNotes mission? Yes.

    Given that Pellegrin has been able to respond in many different places has an injustice been done against him, journalistically or otherwise? No.

    Did anybody seriously expect World Press to take his award away? No. They don’t even have a policy on captions.

    The centre doesn’t like it when questions are asked. They always lash out at the person asking the questions. You can’t expect them to like the tone of an article that calls the practise of one of their sacred cows into question. That’s to be expected. It’s a bitter tonic. But if you beleive that sacred to journalism is trust between creators and audiences then it is a neccessary tonic. World Press Photo always put photographers over audience. That’s their failure.

    It can’t have been an easy few days. I take my hat off to you. You are an inspiration.

    Benjamin

    • pat downs

      Good thoughts. Yes, the tendency is always to kill the messenger, to take heat off the accused. Sometimes the accused is, in fact, guilty. The focus shift from Pellegrin’s overt or covert deceptions to BagNews misses or obscures the main point completely. I don’t think Pellegrin’s “explanations” of the photos and captions would have changed even if BagNews has asked him. In fact he had a day or so to formulate a response after the original BagNews piece ran, and what we got was a very dubious, unbelieveable set of excuses and justifications, thin at best.

    • Jim Johnson

      Benjamin, No one thought WPP would revoke the award. But, they might have replied by acknowledging that they need a policy on accompanying text. Instead, they simply say ‘oh well! … nothing that we have learned changes anything.’ And that is because they’ve not learned anything. No surprise.

  • http://twitter.com/tomleininger Tom Leininger

    I have been a long time fan of this blog, but when I read the initial post last week I found myself becoming increasingly angry. I was surprised that a blog that encourages deeper thought when reading pictures would go against a photographer in such a public way. In hind sight, I realize I was naive. I think you were naive in thinking you could air a serious accusation in public for the sake of “critical thinking and analysis”. See, never once was I disappointed in Pellegrin. I was disappointed in the actions of this blog and those who decided to air their grievances with Mr. Pellegrin in public. I still do not understand why this had to go public in the first place? I do not hold photographers from other countries to the same standards I have. I worked for a newspaper in America. He works as an independent for magazines, and was not trained in American style journalism.

    The problem for me is that one of the people involved in a tenured faculty member who teaches Ethics and Photojournalism. I would not expect the first idea of fairness to violated here. I was naive in thinking this. I have read in other places that Professor Steinberg emailed Mr. Keller to find out why the picture might have been included. Why not ask the source? That is what a journalist would do. I have worked with enough journalists to know that when something does not smell right, they investigate. They relish chasing down the story.

    My take, from a comment Mr. Keller made the other day on this site, is that he initially did not intend to make this public. Who did and why? How about contacting a contributor not from Rochester to write this up? When the publisher of the blog, a consultant, and one of her former students take part in all of this, it does not smell right to me. It has a pro-Rochester feel to it. It takes someone not as known to them to try and suss out the facts.

    I have read how bloggers have fought for the same rights as journalists, but in this post you say you are not journalists, but bloggers. Semantics in my mind. When people who teach journalism ethics are involved you can’t have any lapses of any of basic journalism, which is fairness. Or as Reuters puts it in their handbook freedom from bias. http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php?title=A_Brief_Guide_to_Standards%2C_Photoshop_and_Captions#Freedom_from_Bias

    So when you write: “In the context of those ethical issues regarding Paolo Pellegrin’s photos, we can’t help but feel that the concentration on BagNewsNotes, and the focus on contacting the photographer prior to publication, is missing the larger point.” It is not a larger point, but a lapse of ethics that is worse than anything Pellegrin may or may not have done. It is not being free of bias, it is not being fair to the subject, it is not being fair to your readers. This blog created propaganda. I am not comparing this blog to Reuters, I am stating an example of journalism ethics.

    I am not defending what Pellegrin did. For me, what he did gets lost in the way you approached this story. It is a bit ironic that all of this started over one of the weaker images in his entry. That statement is my opinion. I strongly believe that it is the job of the photojournalist to present a story in a truthful manner. If the two subjects of the photographs are not happy with the way they were portrayed, take it up with the photographer. This happened to me a number of times during my years as a working newspaper photographer.

    This takes me back to the original question I feel like has not been asked, maybe it was but transparency is not a hallmark of this blog I have come to learn, why not just handle this privately and then maybe write something?

    • bks3bks

      Codswallop. You are defending what Pellegrin did. I have no idea why there is so much faux outrage about holding Pellegrin’s feet to the fire. Pellegrin should not have included the photo in the essay. Once he accepted the award, he was no longer entitled to special treatment. Everything BagNotes wrote was true, some of what Pellegrin wrote was false. Case closed.

      –bks

    • Stan B.

      “I was disappointed in the actions of this blog and those who decided to air their grievances with Mr. Pellegrin in public.”

      Really? If Mr. Pellegrin had decided to exhibit his photography in a less public forum (in a fine art gallery or art publication), we wouldn’t be having this debate.

    • Stifledgenius

      I completely agree. What’s worse is I haven’t seen anyone post defending Pellegrin, just wishing Bag broke the story in a more ethical way. Yet people like bks3bks accuse you of defending Pellegrin when all we are asking for is better writing from Bag.

  • black_dog_barking

    But we are not a newspaper and we are not an award organization. – See more at: http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2013/02/bagnewsnotes-response-to-world-press-pellegrin-decision-controversy-overall/#disqus_thread

    Continuing this line, the medium here is *not* Paper&Ink. It is digital and it is interactive and fluid. Among the virtues of the newer medium is its ability to correct mistakes, oversights, and misunderstandings. One of the virtues of Print is immutability, one of its weaknesses too. Once printed, the text belongs to the ages. Digital medium is amenable to post-publishing changes, addendums, corrections, &c.

    Had the Rochester Photo Story run in print then the photographer should have a chance to respond at same time, in the same venue. Once the ink dries the story is frozen, the jury is out. In contrast, the Bagnewsnotes post was not the end of the story in any real sense. Any one reading the post and following the comment thread knows the post itself was closer to the beginning of the story than its end.

    New medium, new rules. Need to figure ‘em out.

    ( Disqus added the “See more …” sentence to my cut’n'paste from the article without asking me. Probably ok, maybe even a good idea. Another new rule? )

    • http://twitter.com/duckrabbitblog duckrabbit

      spot on.

    • Jim Johnson

      Actually the photo essay DID run in print – in die Zeit – and the photo in question is not included. The whole episode stinks. The photo essay was published in one form and submitted to the WPP award competition (in the ’stories’ to single shot category) in a different form. The newly included photo alters the series totally. And that has nothing to do with the caption/text problems Pellgrin tries to rationalize away. To my mind no one – not Pellegrin, not Magnum, not the war givers – come out well in any of this.

  • Stan B.

    Perhaps the creatives and professionals charged with reporting our news,
    as well as those that reward them, will start to realize
    that people are now actually paying attention and asking questions,
    instead of just oohing and aahing in blind admiration.
    We need more accountability, not less; we need more transparency, not
    rhetoric.

    That’s to everyone’s benefit- thankless task that it is.

  • pat downs

    re” POY’s statement just posted:

    “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.”

    WTH? The captions were never the primary issue, imo, though of concern too. The photo in question is a set-up shot, a manufactured portrait passed off as a found documentary image. They mislead the viewer and misrepresent who the subjects are. THAT is the issue. So frustrating. “POY…honor photojournalists and celebrate their outstanding documentary photography”? Really? While Pellegrin’s entry may be 98% documentary and real, the last 2%, this fabricated image of guy with gun, was not. Remember, it was a 50 cent part that brought down the Space Shuttle in flames. http://poyi.org/70/00/

  • Scarabus

    A profession should discipline itself. In this case that means photojournalists and their organizations should be investigating this and making the response they consider appropriate. Not just this or that prize committee, but the profession at large.

    This could be done privately, yes; but only if knowledge of the issue remained equally private. Once the question is out there in a serious way, the situation changes significantly. At that point to respond is unavoidable. Because even to remain silent speaks very loudly — and ambiguously: “This doesn’t violate our standards”? “We don’t think this is a big enough deal to require comment, much less action”? ” Etc.

    And once it’s out there, it’s important that knowledgeable persons beyond the photojournalist profession make themselves heard as well. That’s because the credibility of photojournalism seriously affects the public discourse. Some of the questions raised might never be answered or even answerable (see Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris), but it’s important they be aired.

  • michael kircher

    My suspicion is that had BagNews actually approached Pellegrin before blogging and given him a chance to have his say, the story would have lost some of the sensationalism and of course the attention that followed.

  • Stifledgenius

    Hopefully you’ll see how important the writing of an article is in the future. You’ve deemed fit to write 2 more blog posts defending your article that no one has even tried to dispute! You’ve wasted countless hours trying to defend your point while missing your reader’s points of bad writing (I won’t say journalism since you continually say you aren’t a journalist even though you broke this story instead of passing it along to a real journalist). And by the way, when you write this as your first line about your site: “BagNews analyzes and reports news and media images.” people may get the wrong impression.

    • d. feinis

      my take is that majority of readers have been supportive. This post isn’t an apology, nor should it be. Following comments on Facebook, Lens Blog, and here–the majority of comments are supportive. They are supportive because the posts were factual and well presented.

  • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

    I just wanted to point out our update based on further comments and policy changes at POY published today on the Lens Blog:

    Although it only addresses the misrepresentation of Mr. Keller as far as the caption goes, we believe it’s a positive step to see the POY director, Rick Shaw, clarify captions and story summaries at the same “standard of published work” as the image, and to also learn in the same Lens Blog interview that new language about self-authorship and accuracy will be added to the contest rules next year.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

    A right to respond? I’m not a member of the “photo-journalism community” I’m just a community college math teacher who wants to better understand media. But, I find this notion that one gets a right to respond to be overly kind. Who gets such “professional courtesies” — isn’t the notion of such courtesies inherently unfair?

    The subjects of these kinds of photos often don’t get a right to tell their side. (Except maybe here on the bag!)

    I’m sick and tiered of ordinary people being exploited for photograph art/journalism.

    I’m tired of photos of homeless people with withered faces and no names, sad black and white photos of sad black and white people with no names, starving kids with no names, etc. Where are the “professional courtesies” for them?

    Good photojournalism amplifies the voice of the subject when that subject is the kind of person who’s point of view is often unheard.

    But too often we just get a bunch of images that reaffirm our prejudices and stereotypes.

    Daylighting this kind of thing is one of the best things that can happen. Thank you!

  • G Laurent

    Who is Mr Michael Shaw? A journalist? No. A blogger? Perhaps.

    Click on the name and you will see :

    “Internal Server Error
    The server encountered an internal error or
    misconfiguration and was unable to complete
    your request.”
    I din’t contact Mr Machael Shaw Before writing the comment.

    Had I contacted Mr. Shaw, it clearly would have made some people
    more comfortable, but again,it is not my job, it is just a comment…

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  • http://twitter.com/tomleininger Tom Leininger

    And how do you know everything BagNews wrote is true? And who are you?

  • bks3bks

    Well enlighten me. What did BagNews write that is false?

    –bks

  • pat downs

    Crap … typos! Where is the edit option?

  • http://twitter.com/tomleininger Tom Leininger

    We are having this debate based on the actions of three people with a bias.

  • http://twitter.com/duckrabbitblog duckrabbit

    No we’re not. The debate is centred Pellegrin’s actions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.steinberg3 Michael Steinberg

    How does bias enter into the objective questions of (1) Where the photograph was made, (2) where the Rochester “Crescent” is located, and (3) whether there was any connection between this photograph and the subject of the photo story? This is just mudslinging.

  • http://twitter.com/tomleininger Tom Leininger

    If you read my original statement, you can see that I am saying how I read this from the beginning comes from bias on the point of this blog. Their actions colored how I read the initial story. I am not slinging mud. I am making statements based on how I read the story. My statements are pointed toward those who broke the story. If any of those people want to respond to me, I am all for it.

  • Stan B.

    “I am making statements based on how I read the story.”

    As has already been pointed out- hopefully, people are making statements not on their personal interpretations, but on the actions voluntarily taken by the photographer himself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.steinberg3 Michael Steinberg

    What is the “bias on the point of the blog”? Few of the Magnum photographers did much to ingratiate themselves when they were in Rochester, but that’s just the way things are and nobody here was out to get them. What happened with this photo made jaws drop, however. The facts are not in dispute. Pellegrin does not dispute them, though he claims he didn’t know where he was and thus that he didn’t know if he was in the Crescent or not. I think that’s absurd, myself, but that aside, don’t European photojournalists know how to ask questions like American ones do? The answer would have been clear enough–Shane didn’t even live in the city and his neighborhood has no violence problems. Simply put, this photograph was not what it was claimed to be. That was the real point of the piece and to me is the real issue. (Whether or not Pellegrin mistakenly thought Shane had been a sniper is a question on which there is more than one side, and on which it would have been reasonable to ask Pellegrin, but there’s no two ways about the location of the photograph and the fact that it was nowhere near the Crescent.) You are mistaken, moreover, in thinking that Loret contacted Shane to ask why the picture might have been included in this edit. That was not anything that he would be expected to know and really has nothing to do with the problem here. She asked him where the picture was made. That information, which nobody doubts was true, was the basis for going forward with the piece. Nor is the real question whether Shane was happy about the way he was portrayed, though this concern was expressed in the story for completeness’ sake. The question is whether this photograph was made in the Crescent, as Pellegrin claimed it was, and whether it has any proper place in a story purporting to reveal something of the experience of living there. The answer to these questions is no. All Pellegrin can do is try to explain or excuse his conduct. He can’t make a suburban parking garage into a part of the inner city. I do think that your suggestion that this might have been better handled with a private communication and then a story is a reasonable one, but I don’t think there was anything unethical about breaking the story as Michael Shaw did and I can’t see how his choice was a product of bias.

  • Stifledgenius

    No duckrabbit, the debate isn’t. The debate that caused a need for the second and now this third post are critiques to the way Bagnewsnotes broke this story. No one has disputed the facts or defended Pellegrin on this sites comments or The Online Photographer’s comments. We were frustrated with the poor writing, that is all.

  • William Reeves

    An apology would have been nice, These posts have come off as highly hypocritical in my eyes. Each one accusing Pellegrin of something that they themselves then do. Then it gets excused away as “this is only a blog” or “we’re only critics”.

    I get that this site is not news, and I get that the posts are not intended to be interpreted as such. However the fact remains that many did view this as news reporting, sloppily at that, and the site has yet to acknowledge any errors on their part. One of those errors concerns the facts you mentioned. Yes there were facts, but they were mixed in with a litany of opinion (critics after all), poorly presented, and done in a way that reeks of sensationalism.

    Pellegrin made mistakes, but BNN did as well. Their refusal to say so is troublesome and makes me question whether or not I will continue to post here (I can hear some of you cheering now!).

    I have seen a number of posts saying that those of us upset with BNN do not “get the real issue”. No, we get it. However we also get that this is two issues, not one. Our concerns with BNN have nothing to do with what Pellegrin did or did not do. Nor are we attempting to blow smoke to distract from the real issue. What we are trying to do is say if you intend on publicly accusing someone of something so substantial as this, then do so responsibly and ethically.

    Pellegrin has explained himself and the World Press has accepted it. That issue is dead. What now needs to happen is for Pellegrin to decide how he will handle such situations in the future. The same is true for BNN as I am certain we will have more of these issues raised in the future. Will they behave the same, or have they learned anything from this? This post has me doubting…

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