On the Controversy of World Press Photo 2017

Following World Press Photo 2017 awarding the second place in long-term projects category to the photographer Hossein Fatemi’s work An Iranian Journey, the Columbia Journalism School adjunct Ramin Talaie, himself a photographer, published an online report on Medium on March 1st, 2017 accusing Fatemi of unethical behaviour in regard of the industry standards and specially of fiction photography disguised as documentary.

Contact Sheet of “An Iranian Journey” among the 2017 photo contest collection at World Press Photo.

The Talaie-Report which was quickly followed by a formal response from the World Press Photo foundation’s Managing Director, Lars Boering, ignited a controversy mostly discussed on social media.

Independent curator Hester Keijser took to Facebook:

Shortly after, Olivier Laurent, Time Magazine’s photography blog LightBox editor posted a non-public* thread on his personal facebook stating:

Greg Marinovich, veteran photographer and research fellow at Harvard University followed up:

Meanwhile the issue had led to some brief reactions on Twitter:

Arthur Bondar, photographer, engaged with the discussion, too:

Marco Pinna, photo editor with National Geographic Magazine Italy had a thread where an interesting comparative sub-discussion addressing the role of regime-supported media in Russia and Ukraine evolved:

Morteza Nikoubazl, a former Reuters’ photographer and current contributing photographer to the Farsi version of National Geographic “Gitanama” addressed the issue on his personal facebook by March 2nd, 2017 (Note: The slightly aggressive tone of the letter is apparently due to its word-for-word translation from Farsi and assumingly not intended by Nikoubazl):

Meanwhile Rights Exposure, a human rights consultancy tweeted and engaged also Fatemi’s agency Panos Pictures briefly:

Robert Godden, founder of Rights Exposure had interesting ethical aspects of the issue discussed on his personal Facebook thread simultaneously:

On March 3rd, 2017, World Press Photo then published their technical report for the 2017 contest addressing the Fatemi issue and the Talaie-Report in a post-award issues section (p. 17ff).

This was followed up on March 6th, 2017 when James Whitlow Delano, photographer, latched the controversy:

Eventually, since my own work has been referenced in the chain of evidence the Talaie-Report is providing, and as Lars Boering has suggested in World Press Photo’s formal answer, I have been a subject of investigations by Santiago Lyon on behalf of the World Press Photo foundation, by Panos Pictures and by the New York Times that had published the essay in January 2014, at different stages over the past four years regarding the questionable work.

Lars Boering is right to say that World Press Photo “could only judge the images that were part of the contest”. However, when he argues that “Ramin [Talaie] was not present when any of the photos he criticises in the winning story were taken […]” he ignores not only the independent and unbiased nature of the Talaie-Report, but also the fact that me and the photographers anonymized as “Ali” and “Nahal” — parties directly involved in the creation of some of the addressed images, have all been primary sources to the Talaie-Report. A fact that was later dismissed by the technical report of the World Press Photo.

Suggestions that the Talaie-Report and the controversy were a “witch hunt”, or based on personal animosity between photographers, have distracted from the fact that people take the work they do, their integrity and both their professional and personal reputations very seriously. The photography community has only been urging for more transparency and furthering the discussions of ethics and industry as the threads above by industry professionals demonstrate. Something that should be quite clear to all those involved as it is the mission of journalism qua definition.

However these very discussions that would bring photography further are going on one-sided, as at this point the ball is in the court of the other direct addressees of the Talaie-Report, namely Hossein Fatemi and the agency representing his imagery, Panos Pictures, who so far have preferred an ominous silence regarding all allegations while the World Press Photo investigations to the brief extent that they have been publicized barely succeed to establish any transparency.

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UPDATE 2: By March 8th, Adrian Evans, director at Panos Pictures made a public response on behalf of the agency representing Hossein Fatemi addressing the Talaie-Report on their blog, but did not deliver any new facts except for:

This is not the first time we have received allegations against Hossein Fatemi. These have ranged from rumours and anonymous e-mails to being approached directly by other photographers. On every occasion we have immediately investigated but never found any substance to the allegations or reason to take further action.

but fails to give any explanation on if and how thorough the agency’s investigations have been at any stage. Yet it concludes:

Panos has been respected for its integrity for the past 30 years and will continue to support concerned and ethical photojournalism.

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*UPDATE 1: While in the initial version of this article Olivier Laurent’s thread was not included due to his privacy settings, it has been included now to establish a more complete picture of the case after he made the thread publicly visible.