Paolo Pellegrin Responds To Claim Of Misrepresented Winning World Press, POYi Photos

Feb 22, 2013
In the POYi-winning contest entry, the caption on Pellegrin's photograph reads: ""THE CRESCENT. ROCHESTER, USA 2012"  A former US Marine corp sniper with his weapon. Rochester, NY. USA 2012"
In the POYi-winning contest entry, the caption on Pellegrin's photograph reads: ""THE CRESCENT. ROCHESTER, USA 2012" A former US Marine corp sniper with his weapon. Rochester, NY. USA 2012"

UPDATE February 26, 2013, 11:40am EST: Michiel Munneke, the managing director of World Press Photo, has today released this statement regarding Paolo Pellegrin's WPP award-winning photographs: "Upon reviewing the image and caption of former Marine Shane Keller in Paolo Pellegrin’s story on The Cresent that was awarded a second prize in the General News Category of the World Press Photo contest 2013, the jury is of the opinion that although a more complete and accurate introduction and captions should have been made available by the photographer, the jury was not fundamentally misled by the picture in the story or the caption that was included with it.”

By Donald R. Winslow

ROCHESTER, NY (February 22, 2013) – What we had was a serious accusation. What we didn't have until now was a response from the photographer or his agency, Magnum Photos.

An investigation into one of Paolo Pellegrin's pictures in an photo essay that recently won honors in both World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International claimed that the image did not show what it claimed to show, it was not taken where it was said that it was taken, and the subject wasn't who the photographer said it was in the contest captions.

Published today on BagNewsNotes and written by publisher Michael Shaw and reported along with RIT photojournalism professor Loret Steinberg and RIT photojournalism alumnus Shane Keller, the article dissects with great detail the "who, what, where, and when" of how Magnum photographer Pellegrin came to Rochester and shot the essay called "The Crescent, Rochester USA 2012." 

But what we didn't know until Pellegrin responded to NPPA and News Photographer magazine today was the "Why?" behind the photojournalist including this picture and its caption in his WPP and POYi-winning essays, a picture that might not be what it claimed to be, with captions that Shaw claimed were "photographer-written descriptions almost wholly plagiarized from a 10 year old New York Times article.

What we also didn't know from Shaw's story is whether Pellegrin, who is Italian, actually wrote the contest captions himself - or whether the contest entries were prepared by someone at Magnum. 

And the article made no reference to whether Magnum and Pellegrin were contacted for an explanation or a response before the story was published. We've since learned from Magnum and the photographer that the story was published today, a well-documented accusation indeed, but there was no request made by the authors for an explanation or a response. So we didn't have the other side of the story. Until now.

After learning of the BagNews story's claims, Pellegrin has released a statement to News Photographer magazine through Karen Probasco at Magnum Photos. In the interest of full discussion, here is his complete statement (unedited and unabbridged):

Pellegrin said: 

"I'm sorry that Michael Shaw, Loret Steinberg and Shane Keller don't like my pictures from Rochester. It's not uncommon for people living in a community to disagree with an outsider's take. We all know that. They find my work 'heavy handed.' I found many of the things I witnessed in Rochester shocking. Part of a documentary photographer's job is sometimes revealing things that local elites would rather not have discussed quite so openly. In my experience, it was particularly true in Rochester that certain portions of the population were disinclined to have an open conversation about race, poverty and crime. 

"Shane doesn't like the caption of the portrait I made of him. (He does acknowledge, however, that this picture was a portrait, and I've never indicated otherwise.) Here is the caption for that picture: 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon.' Shane agrees that he is a former Marine and that he is standing with his weapon in Rochester. My firm recollection is that Shane described himself that day as a sniper. He may have misspoken; I may have misunderstood; or he may have used the word 'sniper' in a manner that was not meant to imply formal status as a Marine Corps Sniper (he spoke for a long time about sniping). In any event, if Shane was not actually a Sniper in the Marine Corps the caption should be changed to read 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine Corps member with his weapon.'

"Shane also points out that I took his portrait. This is true, and his account of how we were introduced by Brett, who was assisting me, is also substantially accurate. I had been spending the majority of my time riding along with the Rochester police in the Crescent and otherwise interacting with the community there. I approached the work through a combination of reportage, portraiture, and even landscapes. I also realized that to tell more fully the story of gun violence in Rochester, as exemplified by what I was seeing in the Crescent, I wanted to make some portraits of gun aficionados. Like any journalist, I worked with my assistant to locate such people, and Shane was one of the people we located. I think his portrait, and even his reaction to it, add an interesting dimension to the story. Shane thinks he and his guns have nothing to do with the violence in the Crescent; I disagree. (For what it's worth, there is no firm agreement in Rochester as to what constitutes the 'Crescent;' it sometimes seems to be a conceptual designation as much as a geographical one. I actually didn't know where precisely Brett had driven me to meet Shane, which is one of the reasons I captioned the picture simply, 'Rochester.')

"I have no idea why Shaw et al. appear to think there is something wrong with making a portrait, or that making a portrait is not 'authentic.' As photojournalists, we make portraits all the time. Are my portraits from Gaza any less 'authentic' because they're portraits? Of course not. It's ridiculous. 

"There is one element of the Bag News Notes story that is worthy of discussion in the face of a changing photojournalistic landscape, however: The relationship between my captions, such as, 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon,' and the background text about the story that accompanies them. Traditionally, when photographers like me produced work freelance, our agencies - in my case, Magnum - would distribute the photographs to publications with a background or 'distro' text and a series of captions. The captions were meant for publication; the distro text was for editors, who, if they took the work, would assign a writer to produce a text that would accompany the captioned pictures.

"In Rochester, I produced the work directly as part of a collaborative, freelance project with a number of my colleagues, and the work ended up winning awards without ever having been mediated by the English-language press. (Some of the work did appear in Zeit in Germany, although Shane's picture did not.) Thus, my photo captions are accompanied on the World Press Photo and POYi sites by the kind of background text that ordinarily would not be published. (Zeit, for instance, didn't publish it.) This distinction between captions and background information is, in my mind, quite important. 

"My picture captions are my authored work, based on my individual work in the field, and I stand fully behind them. (If a small correction sometimes needs to be made -- like clarifying that Shane was a Marine but not a sniper in the Marine Corps -- so be it.) 

"The background text, which traditionally would be for internal uses, and not for the public, is something I gathered from various sources in Rochester and from the internet, including the New York Times. Factual background sentences like, 'The Crescent is home to 27 percent of the city's residents and 80 percent of the city's homicides' are frequently repeated in the neighborhoods I was working in; I believe I first encountered the statement in connection with the House of Mercy and the amazing Sister Grace, with whom I spent a considerable amount of time. (The sentence is on House of Mercy's facebook page, for instance.) I confirmed my background information in various interviews with the Rochester police, the House of Mercy, and many others - but that doesn't change the fact that it was intended as background information, i.e., the starting point for someone else's authored work. I'm a photographer, and I produced a body of photographic work.     

"Looking at the presentation on the World Press Photo and POYi sites, I do regret the formulation, 'where these pictures were taken' in the background text in relation to Shane's picture. Shane's picture is not captioned the Crescent, and I wouldn't have captioned it the Crescent, because I wasn't sure it was taken there (as stated above: I wasn't sure exactly where in Rochester Brett had driven me to meet Shane). I captioned the picture 'Rochester, NY, USA.' But the juxtaposition with the background text is confusing and should be fixed. The story is about the Crescent, and I continue to believe that Shane's picture tells an important part of the story about Rochester, guns, and gun violence (whether Shane agrees or not), but I don't want there to be any confusion. For purposes of clarity, I don't have any problem with the picture itself, how it was made, or its inclusion in my story. 

"One final thought: Neither Shaw, Steinberg nor Keller ever attempted to contact me. They do not quote Brett, anyone in the Crescent, the police officers I spent so much time with, etc. It seems somewhat strange to me that while mounting a purported journalistic high horse they themselves did not follow the basic tenets of fair and professional journalism."

In another response to the accusations, World Press Photo's press officer Barbara Bufkens today told Olivier Laurent of the British Journal of Photography, "We are currently conducting our own independent fact checking and research into the backgrounds of all prizewinning pictures and stories. The aim is to verify the information provided in the entries, and it involves contacting the photographers to confirm facts regarding all the images. This is standard procedure for all winners and will include verifying the circumstances of the picture in question."

POYi director Rick Shaw responded, "Pictures of the Year International respects the integrity of all the photojournalists and we have confidence that the journalistic ethical values apply when submitting entries to the annual POY competition. POY will not presume any lapse of ethics or review any situation until we get a position statement from the photographer and review all the allegations."