Everything Powerful

NOTE: This post was written before World Press Photo rendered its verdict on March 1. Their decision stands and they accept that this work is indeed a fiction and that the staging of the images was part of the photographer's process. In many ways I find it liberating to see an acceptance of new, less factual forms of storytelling and Troilo explains the work as being a metaphor, which is exactly what I speak about in the following text. That being said, I see no mention of this symbolic approach anywhere the story appears officially; On the WPP website I still see it being presented as a straight up photo-journalistic reportage. And the statement issued by the WPP on the matter is in my opinion beyond strange and confusing given their rules and usual stance. If change is indeed coming it needs to be transparent. If a photographer is waxing poetic for the sake of argument and art it needs to portrayed as such.

Tragedy sells.
Tragedy yields awards.

A few months ago I wrote a post entitled On Visual Truth, for Kage Collective’s Chronicle blog. Today I’d like to revisit the subject in light of something I read over the weekend: the latest potential scandal surrounding yet another winner of the World Press Photo awards. At issue this time isn’t manipulation or doctoring of the images after the fact, but the much more insidious staging of events, something quite similar to the Pellegrin/The Crescent confusion in 2012. I’m not taking sides here or accusing anyone of anything. I do however see an ongoing pattern in the mere existence of these very similar situations.

Here’s the gist of it: The Dark Heart of Europe—the winning essay in the contemporary category by photographer Giovanni Troilo—is being challenged by the mayor of the town of Charleroi, the Belgian city at the centre of the photo series. Basically, he’s calling bull%# on the entire gloomy portrayal and asking for the prize to be revoked.

Regardless of intentions or where this eventually ends up, I think there’s a reason we’re seeing this sort of problem year after year: we’ve built an environment that essentially rewards nothing but drama at varying levels of intensity. So we can’t be surprised by the temptation to twist reality in order to fit the competitive mold, to assign some deeper meaning when the truth isn’t “interesting” enough to warrant a judging panel’s scrutiny. To compete, the photographer’s world has to be a hard and cruel place or envelop hope in utter darkness, that it may shine a little brighter when the curtain is lifted; to be considered, photography needs to elevate the everyday into the heroic. Blockbuster material, always.

It’s a conceit. I can make anything heroic and I can spin drama from the most innocuous scene should I wish to do so. I can turn snapshots into a Homeric tragedy with a few simple words scribbled in just the right order, the right rhythm; it’s not hard—all you need is the proper intent, capture and camera exposure to set the tone; selecting this moment instead of that one. What we see and what we choose to see… In every case these are points of origin that can drive us in any direction. The question is: do we embrace it or not? Do we base it on honesty or not?

Playing the caption game: "On his afternoon walk, Giovanni escapes what has become the most troubled neighbourhood in Venice. Crime rates which were once non-existent have risen sharply in recent years making life increasingly difficult for long time residents." This is of course completely made up. I shot this on a late afternoon stroll in the beautiful Giardini district. The natural contrast provides the tone. Honesty and clarity is up to me.

We've come to expect cinematic grandeur in a world of mundanities, we reward the extraordinary at all costs in a reality that is in fact made up of millions of beautifully insignificant moments we usually fail to notice. We want facts that entertain, to pull at our heartstrings and make us shiver. We want to be privy to secret dealings and rituals, to dark motives and Herculean feats. It’s either triumph or the deepest of despairs. There is rarely any middle ground, there is rarely room for a quiet flowing river making its slow, tedious way to the ocean. We want hurricanes.

Even the beautiful and haunting winning image by Mads Nissen is framed within a story of persecution—the trials of the homosexual and transgender communities in Russia. Which is an ABSOLUTELY LEGITIMATE AND IMPORTANT ISSUE but… I have to wonder if the image would’ve won the judges’ admiration without that context to surround it, without that aura of tribulations. If it had simply been about the everyday lives of homosexual couples in a part of the world where issues are non-existent. Perhaps so; I certainly hope so. But how much of the recognition in these contests depends on the sensational nature of an essay is something we should probably question if we want to get at the root of the problem. I'm not arguing against the portrayal of the extraordinary; it's the pressure to make everything powerful that can become its own trap.

There is no sense in expecting a photograph to be a mirror image of reality,” says Cozien. “Reality is not the same for the frog who perceives only movement, or for a dog who sees in black and white. A photograph will only ever be the vector for a story, for a reality described by the photographer.
— Roger Cozien, eXo maKina

The line between truth and fabrication is incredibly thin and always at risk of being erased; the lie is often but a single flourish away, because none of what we show is ever truly objective. None of it. But to reiterate what I said in that original article: if we turn inwards as photographers, if we speak of our own perceptions and our own thoughts at that precise moment of capture and we make that fact clear, then there is no lie. Our truth, this one truth as witnesses and interpreters of events, if it’s isn’t putting words in the mouths of others, if it isn’t assigning any intentions other than our own—what we see, how we feel, what it means to us—this truth is incontrovertible. Because in such a context, we're expected to be subjective and nothing else. Yes, the process will be self-centred and ego-driven but this doesn't equate egotistical—there's a difference. We can still reveal the other through this approach. It doesn't exclude being an observer or understanding the world beyond our camera, quite the contrary: if we respect who we are, there's a much better chance we'll respect our subjects as well. Photography simply becomes more of a philosophical journey than the pursuit of some fabled overlying truth.

When it’s steeped in research and respect of reality, fact-based documentary work is essential: social issues need to be exposed, the plight of the oppressed denounced, the struggles of the human condition celebrated when it gives rise to betterment. But the dark side is that it can all become a form of theatre, of spectacle: These are the tortured souls of our world. Please confirm your presence—beer and wine will be served.

When I look at the images in this disputed essay, I can easily hear an internal monologue that would’ve suited the subject just as well without allegedly stretching the realities on the ground. I can imagine a personal reflection on the changes facing a small tight-knit community, an editorial voice using these images as an illustration of future possibilities, of trends and transformations; something based in the same present situation but used as a metaphoric pretext instead of a sensationalistic exposé.

It wouldn’t have been seen in the same light though; it probably wouldn't have won this award. (UPDATE: as mentioned in the opening note, it has, in spite of the context)

If the Charleroi story turns out to be more fiction than facts, it won’t just be sad because of the treachery involved but more importantly because it'll hightlight a perceived need for embellishment on the part of the photographer that we should all consider symptomatic.

Of course in the end it all comes down to honesty and professionalism—none of the above is meant as an excuse for deceit in any form. But perhaps if we start accepting the value of photography as a momentary and subjective passage through events, without need for high and mighty conclusions or backstory; if we allow for honest, personal impressions to stand alongside hard facts and extraordinary circumstances, perhaps we’ll diminish the need for falsification. If we accept the photographer’s truth, not as empirical but flawed and coloured by everything he knows and everything he is and was at the instant the image was taken... Maybe we can ease the pressure a bit. Maybe we can start seeing life as it is and drop this pretence of somehow always being on the cusp of some new earth-shattering-larger-than-life revelation.

Maybe we can stop fooling ourselves and change the world, one ordinary moment at a time.


Read also: Photography: Telling Art from Fraud from the AFP blog.