Thoughts on the World Press Photo Award Controversy

I remember a few years ago, when I was a college junior and a bright-eyed journalism student, I had asked an older photojournalist for advice. His advice was to find a new career. I remember rolling my eyes and telling myself he was just another jaded journalist who wasn’t accepting of the evolution of journalism into the technological social media age and I went about on my way. How ironic it was when the other day an undergrad student emailed ME asking for advice. Life came full circle that day.

I found myself wanting to scream at the computer “STOP. GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN. FIND A NEW CAREER.” Find a new career.

Yep, I *almost* said it. I’ve been having a really rough time lately. I feel that I had a strong momentum snowballing for awhile and now, in the past three months, I’ve just felt stagnant. I know you’re probably rolling your eyes and laughing but three months is a long time for me to not feel productive. I’m still actively freelancing and don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I find myself wanting more of it and wanting to write the words to my photo stories more and more. I’ve applied to a ton of internships only to get rejected or ignored. Not looking for pity here, it’s a tough industry and the ones that do get the internships are definitely deserving but I’m starting to feel like my uphill run doesn’t have any slope in sight. Getting all of these requests from undergrad students for interviews for their homework assignment make me want to scream, “YOU DON’T REALIZE HOW HARD THIS IS GOING TO BE, TRUST ME.” Even if you’re the best at what you do, it’s still hard. Most of the time it’s about having an “in” or it’s about who you know. Networking has never been more important. *If you students are reading this, take this to heart. Network, network, network. 


This leads me to the Word Press Photo Award Controversy and my inherent rage over it. This award is something many, many photojournalists pine over. It opens so many doors for people if they win. The fact that journalist integrity wasn’t even a consideration for this is a slap in the face to all of the photojournalists who bust their ass everyday making sure to get that one shot they need to tell the story.

Many photojournalists even put themselves in grave danger to get a shot, to tell the masses a story through their visuals that they obtained through determination, perseverance and luck. Why should they do all that when they can just stage an image instead and win this award?

First let us understand what this award is. According to their website, the WPPA is:

The main overall prize, the World Press Photo of the Year, is awarded to the single photograph that is not only the photojournalistic encapsulation the year, but represents an issue, situation or event of great journalistic importance, and does so in a way that demonstrates an outstanding level of visual perception and creativity. It has come to be regarded as the most prestigious international award for photojournalism in the world.

The controversy stems from the fact that winner of First Place in the contest’s Contemporary Issue Story category, Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo, staged his photographs. When I say staged, I mean he directed his shoots and set them up to portray a certain moment.

The WPPA rules state that:  World Press Photo is a contest for photojournalism and documentary photography, established to cover a wide range of topics, styles and practices in contemporary reporting. The contest requires photojournalists do not stage pictures to show something that would otherwise have not taken place. 

If you read that a little closer it almost comes off as if to say, “If the event otherwise would have taken place, it’s ok to stage it”. That is exactly what photographer Troilo claims. WPPA claims that no misleading information was given in the captions so therefore the award stands. You can read the full photographer’s statement and the WPPA’s full statement here. Here’s some more explanation on the “sex car photo” as told to TIME:

Speaking to TIME, Troilo said that none of his images had been staged — including a particularly controversial photograph of his cousin having sex in the back of a car. “I started this project one year ago,” Troilo said in a phone interview facilitated by a translator. “I’ve spent my childhood there. And I saw different scenes of sex that were pretty rude, to tell you the truth.”

As Troilo worked on his project, which uses Charleroi to discuss the slow decline of Europe, his cousin repeatedly suggested that he photograph him while having sex. “What I did is pretty much letting them know that there was a camera, and I just took a photo,” says Troilo. “They knew I was there, and they didn’t do anything different than what they would have done.”

The photographer, however, he admitted to using a flashlight underneath the couple to improve the image’s quality. 

Oct. 10, 2014. Charleroi, Belgium. Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons. Photo by Giovanni Troilo, as used from TIME article.

Oct. 10, 2014. Charleroi, Belgium. Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons.
Photo by Giovanni Troilo, as used from TIME article.

What’s my problem? My problem stands in the fact that these photos, while an accurate portrayal of what the photographer believed to be true, are not a genuine moment. They are faked, staged and not reality. They are an emulation, the photographer’s emulation, of what he perceives reality in this town to be. “There is no truth, only perception,” a popular quote claims. Yet when you are photographing life, the image is truth. It is there, you were there, they were there, it is what it is. When something staged is depicted as truth wins a prestigious award in the world of photojournalism, Pandora’s box is opened.

Photojournalism is about recording life as it happens: naturally and organically. The skills a photojournalist needs to posses are the skills of understanding the decisive moment, understanding timing and having enough empathy to connect with your subjects in a way that a camera present doesn’t matter. If staging photos of past experiences was allowed, everyone would be a great photographer because there’s no difficulty in controlling life through a camera. The lack of control in combination with getting telling photographs is what makes a photojournalist good at their job, not staging the photos. Journalism school teaches you, no, pretty much tattoos on your brain, that staging, leading or any type of actions that cause the images or written pieces to be exaggerated or staged is unethical and is grounds for immediate termination. Many photographers were disqualified from the contest for removing things or over editing photos in post processing, yet the person who stages the entire thing wins. Something just doesn’t seem right here. Maybe it’s going back to what I was talking about earlier in this post…could it have had something to do with who someone knows instead? 

The whole thing has really struck a nerve with me. I have never entered this contest, nor will I now, and I am no seasoned photo editor, but I know ridiculousness when i see it and this fits the bill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s