World Press Photo’s Inaccurate Statements and Fragmented Investigation

(For the first part of this reporting please check here)


The World Press Photo Contest Technical Report is misleading when it comes to their investigation with regard to Hossein Fatemi’s case. The report states “… Lyon was dealing with primary sources, in contrast to Talaie’s collection of secondary accounts.” This is inaccurate and unnecessarily misleading. It leaves the impression that World Press Photo (WPP) is using this language to alter the facts. What do they mean by “primary sources” versus “Talaie’s … secondary accounts?” The same language was used by WPP’s officials on social media. I would expect that WPP, as a credible journalistic institution, to revise their report and investigation.

I have researched and found the sources, I have interviewed the sources, I have corroborated their stories, compiled and wherever possible cross-checked circumstantial evidence, and provided the entirety of my findings to WPP. My report included relevant contact details with the permission of the sources. In fact I made multiple calls, and stayed in contact with the subjects to find possible holes in their stories before alleging anything. Now according to the WPP’s technical report those very same individuals are WPP’s primary sources, and I have secondary accounts? I am puzzled and to some extent alarmed by WPP’s choice of language.

Fact: Aside from Fatemi, WPP has contacted some of the same witnesses I had provided to them, but not all.

The WPP report continues to state “… Talaie has collected multiple claims from other Iranian photographers about Fatemi’s alleged misconduct. This means the accusations Talaie presents are by definition secondary sources.” This is another false statement and invalid reasoning. The very same sentence is also used by David Campbell, director of communications at WPP, while commenting on a Facebook thread where he states “… the Talaie article collects secondary sources.

The evidence comes directly from the subjects in Fatemi’s work or witnesses who were present when the questionable pictures were made. These are not mere claims from “…other Iranian photographers.” So even by WPP’s own definition this is a deceptive statement by what they mean as “primary sources.” Some of the sources happen to be photographers, but that has no relevant correlation and presented out of context in WPP report.

Fact: The evidence comes directly from witnesses not merely other Iranian photographers.

This must be an unfortunate public relation attempt by WPP to suggest a contrasting narrative. This is a distraction from the objective facts inherent to this case.

Further, the WPP report claims that the post-award jury’s conclusion was based on the evidence presented to them as the report goes on to say “… there was insufficient evidence to declare a clear breach of our contest entry rules.” Conceivably the evidence presented to the post-award jury was not comprehensive. If this is WPP’s public argument for keeping this award, it leaves a number of questions unanswered. Hence, I went back and discovered some issues with Santiago Lyon’s investigation.


Nahal — Pool Party Subject

(Nahal is a pseudonym for one of the witnesses at the pool party photo — in fact I am using pseudonyms for all witnesses for confidentiality and security purposes)

Screengrab of the Fatemi image under discussion.

I have confirmed that Lyon interviewed Nahal the subject from pool party, without a translator. Nahal’s command of English language, and in particular when it comes to speaking in academic or legal terminologies, is highly questionable. This is evident by her text messages with Lyon following his interview. The attached screengrab demonstrates this point.

Screengrab of text messages between WPP jury member Santiago Lyon and Nahal, a subject of Fatemi’s photography.

Nahal concedes that her English may not be good enough, but argues that you do not need to be an English language scholar to describe how Fatemi directed her and her friends for pictures and even asked her to organize the party. I have spoken with Nahal in Farsi and I can assure you that she gets extremely agitated and jittery when talking about her photographs by Fatemi. Lyon and/or WPP should have requested or provided a Farsi speaking translator.

As a subject Nahal expected that her images would be deleted from the WPP website. In her text message to Lyon she goes as far as asking (copied at verbatim)

Hi Santi im not interested about sharing my photo in your website pls help me and delete my photo becouse in iran is really dangeres for me if you use these photo.

A couple of days later she goes on to voice her frustration (again at verbatim), “I told u the truth i dont know why u didnt accept that! I told you most of the photos was setup !! But u published another thinks!! Why?!

WPP’s view on Nahal’s photographs doesn’t seem to take into effect the consequences of her exposure in Iran. In the same Facebook post as above Campbell writes, “The swimming pool picture in the winning story is different. The investigation done for us, which involved confidential interviews with people who were present at the scene so they could speak freely, did not uncover any issues of consent in this case.

Felix Features, a Panos affiliate, still with image for sale at the beginning of March. The image has since been removed from sale.

The issue of consent is very important as a matter of respecting a subject and portraying them in proper light. From her email to Panos in 2013, and the above text to Lyon, we know for fact that Nahal has always been concerned about her security and wanted the photos to be deleted. I know this may not be directly related to WPP rules and procedures, but taking anyone’s word over Nahal’s concerns for her safety should be troubling to everyone.

Immediately after my first report Benjamin Chesterton of DuckRabbit, Tweeted a link (left) of the supposedly deleted photo that was still being sold by Felix Features, one of Panos’ international affiliates.

This is the same photo that prompted Nahal to send an email to Panos in December of 2013. Over three years later these photos were still betraying her trust.

Evidently, Felix Features has removed the photo after this discovery on Twitter.

Fact: Nahal’s safety and privacy concerns, however overstated, have been disregarded by almost everyone in this process.

Mino — Nude Photos

The main issue that Lyon’s investigation lacks is the account of the nude female subject labeled as a prostitute in Fatemi’s captions. I have confirmed that Ali had provided her name and phone number to Lyon, but she was never interviewed on behalf of WPP. Why was this important and primary source never interviewed during WPP’s independent investigation?

Left: Hossein Fatemi, Right: Ali

In another Facebook posting, the WPP’s official account responds to a string of conversation reads “… in cases like this it is both the contest process we have to follow and the most likely way to get closer to the truth. If there is more evidence one way or another later, it too will be investigated.

Fact: Contacting this subject would have brought WPP much closer to the truth.

Since I thought Mino was the most important witness in this case, I did not contact her initially to avoid possibly influencing her prior to WPP’s investigation. However, a few days ago I spoke with her for the first time.

PLEASE NOTE: For the purpose of her safety and confidentiality I am using ‘Mino’ a pseudonym for her.

Unlike Nahal, Mino has no problem with her photos even in the nude. She is not angry and doesn’t feel used. She explained to me that she is a creative person and enjoyed being photographed by both Ali and Fatemi. She went on to explain that everything about the photos were staged and directed by all three of them in a collaborative manner. She remembers the shoot as a fun day among artistic friends while taking pictures for personal use. She didn’t think the photos would be used with misleading captions and painting her as an indigent prostitute who needs to feed her two children. She told to me that she has had a difficult life at times, but she has never been a prostitute. Mino explained that at the time of these photos she was separated from her only daughter for almost four years. She doesn’t understand why would Fatemi write this caption about her, “… a prostitute working to pay for the cost of raising her two children.” She didn’t even know where her daughter was at the time of the shoot. Mino painfully disclosed that her first husband had taken the child away from her for several years.

Fact: According to Mino’s own accounts, she has never been a prostitute and was separated from her only child at the time of the photo shoot.

Mino only learned about the publication of the photos when I asked Ali to find her for my reporting. During my conversation with her I asked her twice if she was a prostitute or had ever had sex for money. She vehemently denied that charge. She explained that she had sex with friends and lovers outside of marriage, in a similar fashion that people have relationships in the West. She continued to say that if anyone, including Fatemi or Ali, think of her as a prostitute, then it is their narrow minded view of a woman’s role in the Iranian society.

I asked her about what directions, if any, she had received from Fatemi? She explained that all three of them, including Fatemi, suggested different poses throughout the shoot. She didn’t think anything was wrong with that concept. Sometimes they, including Fatemi, would turn off the light for a moody photo. She recalled the following image as an example, where someone turned off the light and Fatemi asked Ali to stand between the camera and Mino for a picture. A fact separately confirmed by Ali and presented in my initial report. You may recall the caption for this photo incorrectly reads “A naked woman and her client. The woman is a prostitute working to pay for the cost of raising her two children,” but the claimed client is actually Fatemi’s former friend Ali.

Screengrab from Panos Pictures’ website of a Hossein Fatemi photo with a disputed caption.

With Mino’s pictures aside from staging the subject, Fatemi’s captions have several fictional elements. There had never been a client, this had not been an act of prostitution in action, she has never been a prostitute, and she only has one child.

When I pressed her again about being a prostitute and what she was doing at Ali’s house in the nude. She explained that Ali had asked her if she doesn’t mind posing for him. She mentioned that her boyfriend at the time was there as well. Prior to Fatemi joining them they had gone out and after the photo session everyone enjoyed themselves, drinking and smoking, and stayed at Ali’s house.

In Fatemi’s case, not only his subjects have come forward as witnesses, but his captions are exposed to be deceitful. WPP’s managing director, Lars Boering, frames this case “as having a ‘he said versus she said’ quality about it.” This could be a valid argument if it was only between Fatemi and one other subject. The fact is that there are multiple witnesses and they are not connected to each other. The witnesses do not know each other, yet they all have comparable stories. Mino is not a photographer and Nahal used to be an aspiring photographer during her friendship with Fatemi and neither are connected to the Iranian photography community. I was quoted by Lyon in the WPP technical report implying that the “Iranian photojournalism community is rife with personal animosities and resentments,” but these facts are not a conspiracy by Iranian photographers as my critique may suggest.

While there are many comments on social media about me, my motivations, and these allegations, none of them directly answer any specifics about this case nor rebut any single point provided in my initial report. Journalism is not that hard if one starts asking questions and really search for the facts. Facts are facts and they don’t go away. John Adams, second president of the U.S., was once quoted “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.