Pursuing justice and seeking the truth: a World Press Photo Contest update

Jury member’s desk, 2017 Photo Contest. © Werry Crone / Hollandse Hoogte.

After further investigation and legal advice, World Press Photo would like to provide an update on the debate about the status of the second-prize winner in Long-Term Projects, Hossein Fatemi’s “An Iranian Journey”.

These are the key developments in the situation to date:

  • After a thorough contest overhaul in 2015–2016, we have a new and clear process for issues that arise after awards are announced involving an independent investigation and post-award jury.
  • An investigation of this winner was commissioned on 15 February, the day after receiving a document containing allegations by Ramin Talaie via email.
  • It is essential for all to understand that our remit can cover only photographs entered into our contest. The scope of our concern is, therefore, limited to the six photographs that were in the winning entry from the more than 20 photographs challenged by Ramin. While we work closely with the industry, we do not (and can not) police the profession. This means all other questions about the work have to be addressed to the photographer and/or his representatives.
  • We are confident the investigation provided information that clearly pointed out issues that needed to be deliberated. When the results of the investigation were presented to the jury, it concluded the available evidence did not conclusively substantiate the allegations so there was insufficient evidence to declare a clear breach of our contest entry rules. As a second opinion we sought legal advice, and this advice supported the jury’s decision. We then advised Ramin of this conclusion on 28 February.
  • On 1 March, Ramin published his document of allegations, to which we immediately offered a formal response with an account of the process and the jury’s conclusion. Our quick response was possible because Ramin’s first article was a copy of the document that triggered our investigation.
  • On 3 March we published our Technical Report, which contained additional context and details (see pp. 17–20) on the process that led to the jury’s conclusion.
  • On 8 March Hossein’s agency, Panos Pictures, issued a statement on this case defending their photographer.
  • On 13 March Ramin published a second article criticizing our investigation and process with what he said was additional evidence on two specific images.

The material presented in this second article has also been reviewed, with the focus now on the two photographs Ramin highlights. There is material from the investigation done for us that needs to be considered in relation to these two images.

With regard to the pool party photograph:

  1. The investigation done for us interviewed Fatemi, the person Ramin calls “Nahal,” and a third person present on the day. That third person said the party was not set up for the purpose of photography, and that the host of the party informed guests they could remove themselves from the scene if they did not want to be photographed. This evidence strongly suggests those pictured knew they would be photographed and therefore consented to be photographed by professional photographers.
  2. In December 2013 “Nahal” contacted Panos Pictures demanding one of her pictures be taken down and the agency complied. Panos states “this is the only time that an individual portrayed in Hossein’s work has ever asked us to remove their photograph.” In the four years since, Panos has not had additional requests to remove any other photographs from public display. Furthermore, as far as we are aware, none of the media organizations that have published this story have ever received a request to remove this work.
  3. In recent articles and commentary about this case, this photo has been used and shared on social media. Republication seems inconsistent with the claim that this photograph constitutes a danger to those pictured allegedly without their consent.

With regard to the photograph of the naked woman:

  1. The investigation done for us interviewed Fatemi and one other person present at the scene (whom Ramin calls “Ali”). The two accounts differ, with one saying sex involving two men and one woman took place and money was paid, and the other saying a woman and her boyfriend were photographed having sex for a photo project on prostitution.
  2. The investigation (and, as we understand it, also media organizations researching the work) obtained unpublished photographs of the scene showing three individuals other than the photographer engaged in sexual activity. This makes the issue even more complicated: one of the witnesses denied having sex, but is nonetheless pictured in these photographs.
  3. During the investigation, Ramin emailed the first name and telephone number of a possible female witness in Iran to us. Being unable to corroborate this person’s identity given the limited information provided, any interview would have been of indeterminate value. Stating this was the person in question, Ramin’s second article contains testimony from “Mino” which introduces a third account of the scene that differs substantially from the other two. There is no reason to doubt Ramin’s account of his recent conversation with “Mino”. However, the difficulty is that there are now three very different accounts of one scene, with visual evidence supporting elements of only two accounts, but still without providing a clear conclusion.

These points are not made in order to establish a definitive account of the truth. They are made to show the investigation was done thoroughly, and to underline how difficult it is to establish the truth. In this case, there are witnesses and visual evidence that support the photographer’s account, with other witnesses challenging his account.

Our principle is that justice in these cases requires evaluating evidence to see whether or not the available evidence supports, beyond a reasonable doubt, the accusations being made. Our concern in these cases is to be guided by the evidence relating to contest entries and to ensure it is assessed in relation to our codes and rules. To date, that evaluation has found the available evidence insufficient.

If additional, clear and new evidence comes to light in the future, then this should be shared directly with World Press Photo, and it will also be independently and rigorously examined. While we will not be responding to each and every social media post about this case, we will do our utmost best to answer reasonable and serious questions about our process and our remit. These questions should be sent to our office directly by email so we can deal with them properly.

For us, this issue is not about either supporting or condemning the photographer Hossein Fatemi. It is about judging specific work entered into our contest and recognized by the jury. In the end, the photographer and his agency can speak for themselves about any wider concerns. Since we have done all we can reasonably do to this point, any additional questions about wider concerns should now be directed to them.