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Birth of the Fake News Photo

What’s the bigger mess, this image or World Press Photo? My apologies to Aaron Siskind. Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images Copyright 2018

Has photojournalism lost its moral compass, or does it even have one to lose?

Please understand, that I’m writing from my own perspective here and I don’t see myself as a self-appointed spokesperson for the industry. The words here are simply my opinion. Take them or leave them as you will.

It’s an important question to ask, and a complicated one to answer. Does this business have a moral compass, and if so, where has it gone?

Unlike Athena, photojournalism did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. The ethical and proper practice of photojournalism took a good fifty years to become established and there were plenty of mistakes made along the way. Like the Greek gods, our industry’s founders were far from perfect.

For example, you have Gene Smith, whose motto “Let truth be the prejudice”, manipulated his prints in the darkroom to a degree that would make today’s pixel-pusher blush.

You also have Robert Capa, who changed his name with the hope that people would mistake him for the American film director Frank Capra. A shameless self-promoter, Capa would have owned social media if it had existed in his day. He also, most likely, setup many pictures or at the very least, embellished the stories behind them.

It’s easy to criticize them today for their missteps, but unlike us, they didn’t have a path to follow, they were busy making the path. Most of figuring out the right way to go happens by discovering one is heading in the wrong direction.

Despite their faults, Gene’s pictures got a hospital built and made it harder for a corporation to poison a local population. By forming Magnum, Capa created the collective business model that allowed photojournalists to both work on their own, and retain ownership of that work.

Still, Capa would have been an absolute terror on Twitter.

The rules for photojournalism started taking solid form in the late sixties and became canon in the early seventies, ironically enough, about the same time that Life Magazine folded. The rules were fairly simply and could (with another helping of irony) be mostly summed up by Smith’s motto, “let truth be the prejudice”.

I’ll codify it a little bit here…

  1. The photographer should seek to tell the truth and be honest at all times, with editors, viewers and the subjects of their work.
  2. The photographer should not manipulate, or change the situation they’re documenting either before, during or after the images are made. It doesn’t matter if the manipulation was made with the goal of making the photographs more “real”. Manipulation is not allowed. If you missed the moment, too bad. You can’t ask for it to be recreated. If you imagine something that should or could have taken place but didn’t, even if it would make a really sweet picture… sorry, that’s a no-fly zone.
  3. If someone is trying to manipulate your work, say every American politician since the days of FDR, you need to figure out a way to make a picture that shows that manipulation… without manipulating the situation yourself.

Pretty simple stuff, right? Of course, to do it right you need to be really good. Which takes time and mentorship, and then it takes some more time and even more mentorship. It doesn’t happen right away. None of us are Athena.

Which, at that time was perfectly fine, publications had the money to spend and they had the desire to rise above their completion in the marketplace (whether those competitors delivered their content on paper or across the airwaves).

This system, these moral guidelines on the proper practice of photojournalism, worked well for a good thirty years or so. You had organizations, like the National Press Photographers Association, and World Press Photo who championed these practices and awarded those who captured photographs which upheld these standards. You had professors and scholars who taught these practices and thought big thoughts about how to best implement them (like the honesty of color versus black & white, or flash versus available light, or how many angels could dance on a film canister). Most importantly, you had people who knew how to do it right, teaching other people how to do it as well.

It’s easy to blame the marketplace and how our corporate decision makers reacted to it, but that’s self-serving, a cheap way to excuse ourselves from blame. Nobody forced us to abandon our code of ethics. Nobody forced us to sign away ownership of our work. No, we made that choice, and don’t kid yourself, there’s always a choice.

A real world consequence of this decision was the idea that setting up pictures, creating images we imagine, rather than waiting around long enough for real life to exceed whatever we could dream up, was a good thing. It takes time and experience to capture the real stuff, and publications no longer have the money it takes to afford those two things.

Seeing the writing on the wall, World Press Photo jumped on the bandwagon and started to award and promote the creation of, and really I hate to say it, the normalization of the fake news photo. That’s something that the big brains over at WPP need to own.

World Press Photo has had so many scandals in the past five years, that I’ve lost count. There was the one where they awarded a big name photographer for a picture of his assistant posing with guns (Correction, a friend of the assistant posed holding a gun. My apologies.). There was the award for the artist who posed a picture of a couple pretending to have sex in the back of a car.

They haven’t limited themselves to just photo contest scandals either. According to many they’ve fallen short when it comes to supporting photographers who could really use their support, photographers from poor countries, and women photographers, to name just two undersupported groups.

In my opinion, they’ve resisted righting many of these wrongs.

Their latest scandal, where they allowed a photographer to post pictures on their official Instagram feed of hungry children imagining what kind of food they’d like to eat, with their hands covering their eyes, while standing in front of a table setup with fake food… and no, I can’t believe I just typed that either, is typical, as they took no blame and accepted no responsibility for the images which were posted under their banner.

In these instances, the management of WPP specifically ignored their stated core values, which are; accuracy, diversity and transparency.

The leadership of World Press Photo, in my opinion, made a decision to promote a new kind of photojournalism that accommodates the current financial demands of the news business while destroying the code of ethics that the business is largely founded on. They did this to, in my opinion, remain relevant as a powerbroker in the industry, even though their position will ultimately destroy that very industry. True, it’s a fairly common practice these days to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but come on, accuracy, diversity and transparency… you’ve had your three strikes.

The platform or the means of delivery should have nothing to do with the practicing of ethical photojournalism. Reporting with a keyboard, a smartphone, in words, still pictures or moving images with sound, are all dependent on a person who, above all else, seeks to be honest.

I don’t really blame the photographer who created the images of the poor kids with fake food. I think he was just trying to follow the new rules. Rules that were created by people with power who have no real background in journalism. Sure, one would hope the guy’s internal warning signs would have sounded, but who knows how he was trained or if he had ever even had a conversation about ethics with an experienced journalist. I assure you, he’s had that conversation now.

Garbage in, garbage out, and WPP has been feeding a lot of garbage to young minds lately.

When you look at the region these fake food, fake photos, real kids as props in one’s personal conceptual art project, were made, you’ll see a place which is ripe for some real journalism. The complicated, in-depth kind which is hard to produce and harder still to get published. You have a farming region that supplies grain to countries around the world whose own people can’t afford to properly feed themselves. Meanwhile, the health of local people suffers because of the use of petroleum based fertilizers which make the growing of the grain possible in the first place. Um, hello?

That’s a story that is too logical and straight forward for a the conceptual mind to grasp. Of course, one can’t spell conceptual without the “con”.

The leadership has failed.

I wonder, has there ever been a woman in charge of World Press Photo? It might just be about time.

Regardless of gender, it must be a person who has worked as a journalist at a very high level. We’ve seen what having a non-journalist or an academic in charge of upholding the standards and traditions has given us and it’s not pretty. They put no value on these traditions because they never learned their importance in the first place. That’s why they can so easly throw them away.

We need a person of utmost integrity, a respected journalist, someone who has a deep understanding of what it takes to tell a person’s story with a camera, to head World Press Photo.

We need a person who understands, respects and defends the ethical ideals that our industry’s forebears established for us. The moral compass we’ve been given was developed through trial and error. It wasn’t established on a lark. Of course, it can be improved on, but to belittle it, discard it, in the course of an intellectual exercise that just happens to support the corporate interests of publishing conglomerates that you aim to gain favor from, is selfish and I’m guessing somewhat unethical in itself.

I’m sorry if this piece seems mean spirited. It troubles me greatly to see the art of photojournalism (or craft, call it what you will) so willfully destroyed by people who should have never been given such power in the first place.

Whether you’re working as a bouncer in a roadhouse or as a journalist, the rules are kind of simple. Honesty is indeed the best policy. Treat others like you’d like to be treated yourself, and be nice, until it’s time to stop being nice.