This year the jury of the World Press Photo (WPP) awarded Iranian photographer, Hossein Fatemi, the second place for his long-term project titled ‘An Iranian Journey.’ Many who have directly interacted with Fatemi in Iran, Afghanistan, and other places consider his conduct unethical and ridicule his work as staged photojournalism.
After Fatemi received the 73rd POYi World Understanding Award, for the same photo essay, my inbox and Facebook Messenger was flooded with individuals claiming to have helped or witnessed Fatemi stage his subjects for this project. Others claim Fatemi had plagiarized their work and in some cases even copied images frame by frame. Over the following months I began compiling testimony and evidence and started verifying sources, locations, website and other information.
When the 2017 WPP award winners were announced, I felt obligated to share my findings with WPP and its jury. The next day I provided the following detailed evidence with names and contact information of every single source. I requested an investigation and asked that this award to be revoked.
In response, WPP commissioned Santiago Lyon, former director of photography at The Associated Press, to conduct his own independent investigation on my reporting. Last week Lyon concluded his research and presented a summary of his findings to WPP. Yesterday, I was informed by Lars Boering, managing director of WPP, that the jury had concluded its deliberations and “found that given the evidence presented there was not sufficient evidence to declare a clear breach of our contest entry rules.”
In recent years, World Press Photo had to deal with less ambiguous, but publicly debated issues over pixel manipulation and extreme use of Photoshop. I imagined that deliberately manipulating subjects, captions, and creating scenes would have been a discernible case on breaching any ethical photojournalism guidelines.
In the current state of the world where journalism and photography is under constant attack and labels such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” are openly attributed for firsthand reporting, we must pay close attention to any individuals who produce fake and alternative facts. Fatemi’s manipulation of his subjects and their environment to suit his ambitions is even more dangerous as extreme use of Photoshop or altering the content of a digital file.
In 2014, WPP published a document, The Report on the Integrity of The Image, to define image manipulation as “changing something to suit one’s purpose or to gain advantage.” The concept of image manipulation is exactly what is alleged against Fatemi by many photographers, from inside and outside of Iran. Image manipulation is not only limited to moving pixels, but includes staging images for the purpose of a documentary photo essay.
Melissa Lyttle, NPPA president and POYi 72 judge discusses ethics in a Lens Blog interview and goes on to say “The fact that some photojournalists think any degree of lying and manipulation is O.K. makes me question the message they’re sending to others — as well as the ego they’re stroking.“ In the same blog Patrick Baz, 2015 World Press Photo jury and AFP Middle East chief photographer, voices his concern over photographers who manipulate their work in order to win awards or to get published. Baz continues; “I feel sad that our profession has been tainted by award hunters who use lies to get recognition, but in reality are jeopardizing the essence of photojournalism.”
Fatemi is just that, an “award hunter,” and this important award by World Press Photo jeopardizes everything that the photo community and journalism stands for.
Further Fatemi’s success and relationship with his agency, Panos Pictures, should also be examined. Fatemi has successfully laundered his reputation and work through Panos. This project has been widely published and exhibited. Over the years dozens of grievances have been filed against Fatemi with Panos, including one from myself and one from one of his female subjects below. To this day all such complaints have been set aside or labeled as envoy while the agency continues to sell his work.
Below, I present to you the same evidence that I presented to World Press Photo to create an open discussion on the facts surrounding Fatemi’s work and the conclusion of World Press Photo decision.
I strongly believe that the integrity of photojournalism, truth, and facts are at stake here. I wonder about the message this work and the World Press Photo decision is sending to Iranian photographers and journalists.
Please note: for confidentiality purposes I will not provide personal information of the sources and will only reveal what is publicly accessible online. The names used below are pseudo names.
- A clear example of a set-up scenario is the following photo taken with the help of former friend, Ali, also a photographer. During a phone conversation Ali explained to me how he arranged the subject, a friend of his, to be photographed by Fatemi during one of his own photo sessions. Ali, points out that Fatemi’s caption is incorrect and the fact that he fails to mention the concept of ‘segheh’, a temporary marriage contract in Islam, an important fact in what she was engaged in. Fatemi simply calls her a prostitute without any explanation goes to say that she has two children, but she only has one. Ali provided an exact image that was staged by Fatemi during their photo shoot (below on the right).
Ali also points out that he is the subject (not the client) with the cigarette in his hand in the following photo on Panos’ website from the same day. Ali says that Fatemi asked him to stand and asked her to pose by the window.
The caption incorrectly reads “A naked woman and her client. The woman is a prostitute working to pay for the cost of raising her two children.” Again Ali is the friend in the photo and not a client.
2. The subjects in this photo are more former photographer friends of Fatemi. The captions reads “Women smoking a shisha (sheesha, Narghile, Hookah) an act that has been banned for women in public.” One should simply ask if smoking shisha is banned for women in public, then how is this image even possible other than being set-up?
In December 2013, shortly after Fatemi published this series on Panos’ website, the woman in the blue scarf (above), Nahal, sent an email to Panos’ director, Adrian Evans, about the publication of her photos as well as her friends in bathing suits during a pool party. She demanded the removal of the images that showed them in the pool. In her complaint she describes that these photographs were taken without her consent and threatens Panos with legal action. In the email Nahal cc’d other photographers including Majid Saeedi, a German based photographer Kaveh Rostamkhani, and Magnum’s Newsha Tavakolian in the hope of building a support for her objection.
As a result Panos removed only the above image (above is a saved screen grab), but kept the other photos from of same pool party including the one below from WPP winning series. During a phone conversation with Nahal in 2016, she confirmed that Fatemi asked her to invite her friends so that he can make some pictures of them, but promised not to sell them anywhere.
There is at least one more photo that was kept on Panos’ archive from the same series as seen below.
3. In the next example you can find Fatemi’s photo next to another photographer’s image, Mojgan Ghanbari, a VII Photo mentor photographer. The subjects, in yellow and white scarves, are looking to their right in both images, clearly set-up for a picture so that their faces and the bandage on their nose can be seen as well as a panoramic view of Tehran. The girl in yellow scarf looks directly into Ghanbari’s camera since the subjects are friends with the photographer. Fatemi’s photo shows that the subject in yellow scarf holding the same pose while the other subject is positioned slightly differently for a better layering effect.
4. The following photo from one of the WPP winning images is identical to a photo taken by German based Iranian photographer Kaveh Rostamkhani. Rostamkhani, another former acquaintance of Fatemi, explained to me that he asked Fatemi to be his local guide while working in Iran for his own project. Rostamkhani’s project is accessible on his website which is titled, ‘Iran: Generation Post-Revolution.’ Rostamkhan explains that he never expected Fatemi to copy his frames and use it for own purposes.
5. This is another photo that Fatemi and Rostamkhani shot at the same location, which is included in both of their stories. According to Rostamkhani, Fatemi promised him not to use any of these images. The photo was shot in Isfahan at a recording studio. Fatemi’s caption reads “a rock band plays a secret gig.” However the correct and truthful caption by Rostamkhani reads “The underground band ‘Garage480’ performs a training session in a basement in Isfahan.” A quick search on Youtube on ‘Garage480’ reveals several videos of that recording studio. The band do not seem to be so “secretive,” but “secret” a sexy word that sells and Fatemi knows that. Clearly the nuances of facts are not that important to Fatemi in favor of making a photo more interesting with false captions.
Other photos from the same ‘An Iranian Journey’ series on Panos’ website reveals more staged images and purposely incorrect captions.
6. An Iranian photographer/artist based in Shiraz and another former acquaintance of Fatemi named, Ahmad explained his disappointment over Fatemi’s staged photos and explained to me some of the images in which he had witnessed being set up during Fatemi’s visit in Shiraz.
The following image was taken at a martial arts gym where Fatemi asked his friends to pose just for this photo. The woman on far left, wearing white belt, has never practiced martial arts. In fact she is another photographer friend. According to Ahmad, Fatemi asked her to dress up and to stand in the photo to add another layer to this image. Generally men are not even allowed in women’s gym or workout areas so that should have raised a red flag with any picture editors.
The following photo was part of that same trip in Shiraz is clearly staged with false caption to make it look legitimate. The caption for the photo reads; “Two women smoking as they sit in a car. Smoking in public is banned for women.” However, Ahmad explains that the photo is set inside a private and walled fruit orchard and the car was parked inside the walls. In fact a section of the wall is clearly visible from the back windshield while another white white vehicle is parked to the left of the image. Note that both women are looking away in similar fashion.
7. This image is one of the most unfathomable images in this essay to me. This is an image that can hardly be captured in the most liberal cities of the Western world yet Fatemi somehow has managed to walk into a lingerie boutique and snap it in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There should not be a doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a staged photo. Nobody in Iran can walk into a situation like this, with a camera mind you, and photograph it. This is not a found situation. This is not documentary work. It is purely fictional.
The dressing room door is conveniently left open for the purpose of the photographer. The caption is comical as it reads “A sales woman and a customer look at a lingerie catalog while another woman tries on a bra.” One has to be very naïve to think that any man in Iran can walk into a bra shop and snap away at half naked women!
8. Another example of false captioning for the purpose of making an image more interesting and sexy is the following.
The subject in this image is another fellow photographer, Mojgan Ghanbari (a VII Mentor photographer). Speaking with other photographers in Iran, I have managed to confirm that Mojgan only picked up the guitar for the purpose of Fatemi’s photo. I am not sure if Mojgan was aware that Fatemi was going to use this image as part of his project. The caption reads “24 year old Mojgan plays an acoustic guitar while her father listens.” The fact is that Mojgan is not a guitar player. Fatemi’s representation of a modern family with a tender moment between a daughter and her father is totally manufactured.
9. The following two images follow the example of the above photo of women in private setting. None of these images are “found situations” especially for a male photographer. Female gym’s and workout areas are strictly for women in Iran. Photographing women in workout outfits is considered scandalous and it could result in severe punishment including lashing or imprisonment under Sharia law. This is a reckless and selfish photo set-up.
More On Fatemi’s Character and Work Style
There are dozens of other photographers that have similar claims and allegations against Fatemi’s unethical actions. Unfortunately most individuals do not have any evidence to back up their allegations.
Below are other examples where photos taken by other photographers is almost identical to the ones taken by Fatemi.
Where do we go from here? I expect a robust, open, and honest discussion about World Press Photo decision.
Also there is simply not enough debate and discussions about ethics and ethical journalism in the Middle East. People learn how to make films and take pictures in Iran, but they do not always learn about ethics.