Rochester takes down another photojournalist

The annual winners of the prestigious photojournalism contests are starting to be announced. Another photojournalist has got himself stuck in a controversy, largely of his own making. One upside is that this is one of those old fashioned ethical controversies where digital image manipulation had NOTHING to do with it. One downside to commenting on that is that I have indirect ties to a few of the players so I might appear to have a conflict of interest. I also thought that those ties gave me an unusual position to speak from in terms of the controversy.

The photographer is named Paolo Pellegrin. I have never met him but I have seen a fair amount of his work. I never was a fan of it. It always looked a bit overwrought to me. (I am defining overwrought as too elaborate or fussy.) Take a look at the work yourself via the Magnum site.

At first glance, the work looks simple, evocative and dramatic, but having been in some of the same situations, I know that a huge amount of effort went into getting the “effect” the photographer was striving for (and usually accomplished.)

Let me make the first of many disclosures here, I also hold a small grudge against him since he became a Magnum Photos nominee in 2001 and a full member in 2005. That time stretch was when I finally gave up my twenty year long quest to become a member of Magnum Photos. I submitted portfolios for two decades. Occasionally, I would get personal notes from the various Magnum members who (unsuccessfully) had championed my applications over the years. These were usually written on the borders of the generic rejection letters that others inside Magnum sent me.

The entire controversy is very nicely explained on the Photo District News site. The Lens Blog of the New York Times also reported on the controversy.

The work in question won awards from both World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International. One major issue involves a portrait of an ex-Marine who is shown carrying a shotgun. In the award winning photo story, that image is mixed in with others, showing the underside of life in Rochester, New York with a specific focus on gun violence. The subject in that image (Shane Keller) turns out to be a one time photojournalism student at R.I.T. (Rochester Institute of Technology) and does not live in the crime and drug ridden area of Rochester (an area known as “The Crescent’) that is the subject of Pellegrin’s photo-story. Placing Keller’s image amidst the others implies a linkage between the posed/solicited photo of him and the crime ridden neighborhood, clearly a misrepresentation.

The ethical issues were brought to light in a fascinating piece by Michael Shaw of the web-site BagNewsNotes and Loret Steinberg, a professor of photojournalism at R.I.T.

Another disclosure here: Loret Steinberg is a friend. I taught for a semester at R.I.T. I was also part of an on-line forum organized by BagNewsNotes produced and moderated by Michael Shaw. Loret can be a bit preachy and also motherly in her own way, but she is as sharp as a a tack when it comes to analyzing photojournalism. I don’t always agree with Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes (nor Loret of R.I.T.) but I respect their insights.

Pellegrin’s response has been posted, but I don’t buy it, but that is not news. What might be news is the bits of insight I can contribute to this discussion, points I have yet to read from other commentators.

The issue about Pellegrin’s lifting information from the New York Times interests me because what he is accused of and what he wrote in his response are both absolutely true. I know this because I have done that before, as has every writer, photographer, TV reporter, radio reporter, etc. It would be irresponsible of me NOT to look at what others have done before on a given subject. Pellegrin’s mistake, or maybe that of his underlings at Magnum, was letting that same information go out unchanged, without major paraphrasing. Every journalist borrows from their predecessors and then, if they are smart, tweaks that material so it does not look so obviously “lifted.”

As for the portrait, I think I know what happened there too. Pellegrin was likely near the end of the project and he needed a certain “gun” picture so he let his guard down and said “OK” this will do, knowing he was nearly crossing an ethical line (or possibly knowing he was over the line and just praying things would go well anyway.) The captioning of the image is sloppy at best and malevolent at worst. The caption reads ‘Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon.’ In the image, Keller is holding a shotgun (which may be his weapon at that moment) but it is not the weapon of choice for snipers. It also turns out Keller was not even a sniper in the Marines.

Am I the only one who found it ironic that another famous photojournalist was tripped up in Rochester, New York? Another disclosure here: I have a number of friends who work(ed) at the newspapers in Rochester and/or taught at R.I.T. Once I applied for a job at the same newspapers, though ended up working for eighteen months in Syracuse, just down the New York State Thruway.

The upstate New York city of Rochester, besides being the home to Kodak, was also the scene of the ethics scandal that prompted the departure of Edward Keating from his position as a staffer at N.Y. Times back in 2002. Keating posed a 6-year-old boy with a toy gun and then denied the image was setup.

You would think accomplished photographers, whether members of a prestigious photo agency like Magnum, or staffers at the N.Y. Times, would be smarter than to fudge something so blatantly in Kodak’s backyard.

2 responses to “Rochester takes down another photojournalist”

  1. It goes to show that under pressure, photojournalists resort to reportage techniques, or, to put it crudely (and to borrow a saying from literature), “creative non-fiction”. I am ambivalent about it – if it gets the message across which I am looking for – I might be happy with the result. But, if I damage the trust and reputation on which my work is built (and the organisation that publishes my work), a much finer judgement needs be made, a crucial judgement: if you’re known for good photojournalism, be aware just what can happen when shading into reportage and “CN-F”!!!

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