Paolo Pellegrin’s Sloppy Journalism Ignites Controversy Online

- - Photojournalism

Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin suddenly found himself under intense scrutiny in the photo blog world after a picture he took in Rochester, NY that won him 2nd at POYi, 2nd at WPP and 1st as Photographer Of The Year (I’ve omitted the various sub categories for these awards) was deemed to not show what it purports to show by Michael Shaw and co-contributors at BagNewNotes.

If you haven’t already been down the rabbit hole I will give you the short version (and links if you wish to have several hours of your time evaporate online). Paolo and several other Magnum photographers visited Rochester, NY last April as part of their “House of Photos” series where they collaborate and document something. The purpose I believe (and applaud) is to push the envelope, hang out together to create, and flex the Magnum muscles for potential clients. The award winning image in question was made as Paolo photographed a piece on The Crescent section of Rochester where drugs and violence can be found. The subject of the image was a photojournalism student at RIT who disputes what the caption says, what the picture depicts and how it was used. The student contacted his former Ethics and Photojournalism professor at RIT who consults with Michael on BagNewsNotes where they determined that Paolo had committed misidentification and plagiarism. The misidentification was that the person in the image was not a former Marine Corps sniper, just a former Marine and that he was not in The Crescent but miles away in his parking garage in the suburbs. The plagiarism is a description that accompanied the image that was lifted from a 10 year old New York Times article. Finally, there is allusion, in the subjects description to how this all came about, that the shot was staged. That a picture of this type was needed to tell the story, so they went out and found it.

In a press release and in several interviews Paolo disputes parts of this. He admits to lifting the description and says it was never intended to be published, but simply provided as information for news organizations who might publish the images. He says he may have misheard the subject or the subject misspoke leading him to write the sniper caption. And the  caption was not The Crescent but that was the name of the project he was working on. The caption was Rochester, NY, USA. Regarding the setting up of the image, Paolo simply says that it was a portrait like any other he makes in the course of storytelling (i.e. setup).

I believe Paolo Pellegrin has been very sloppy with his journalism here, but my idea of sloppy is someone else’s libel. I say this because I would categorize the magazines I’ve worked at as “infotainment.” Journalism co-mingling with entertainment and things the advertisers made us do. Which brings me to the point of writing about this whole mess. Photojournalism needs leadership. Photojournalism needs magazines, contests, blogs and photographers who lead by example and practice exceptional journalism. If there’s anything to be outraged about, it’s that one of photojournalism’s brightest stars is sloppy and thinks it’s not a big deal.

Here are the links:

The post that kicked it all off:
http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2013/02/when-reality-isn%E2%80%99t-dramatic-enough-misrepresention-in-a-world-press-and-picture-of-the-year-winning-photo/

The follow up piece:
http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2013/02/bagnews-paolo-pellegrin-and-reading-the-pictures/

Paolo’s statement released to NPPA:
https://nppa.org/node/36604

Len’s blog:
http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/22/a-prize-winning-ethics-lesson/

PDN:
http://pdnpulse.com/2013/02/paolo-pellegrin-and-his-subject-at-odds-over-photograph.html

Jim Colton calls it Photo Contest Bashing, That Time Of Year:
http://jimcolton.com/blog/2013/2/22/photo-contest-bashing-must-be-that-time-of-year

The Online Photographer
http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2013/02/what-happens-when-reality-isnt-dramatic-enough.html

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20130222/LIVING/302220053/Controversy-surrounds-prize-winning-photo

There Are 52 Comments On This Article.

  1. I think you really nailed it with the most important statement of all. Most journalism (photographic or otherwise) has regressed again into a sort of ‘infotainment’ and “editorialism”.

    I feel like this is not a new concept, but more a sudden realization by the media outlets (again) that they really do hold all of the cards, as long as they can continue to support a profitable following. I feel like thoughtful and ethical journalism has taken a back seat (again), as readers are really no longer interested in the facts, just entertainment and sensationalism, especially sensationalism that supports their own preexisting beliefs.

    I think that only for a very brief period (historically speaking) did real journalistic reporting exist in a substantially influential way. Newsmen, and those who direct them, have always been powerful in controlling the news and the way it is presented , and, as we all know, power always corrupts.

    I would love to hear meaningful arguments to the contrary.

  2. Just over two years ago I was commissioned to do some work for an NGO in Ghana. After completing my assignment I decided to travel to my parents’ hometown (I’m a Ghanaian by birth) Cape Coast-Elmina and took photos of young boys playing and fishing along the beaches. I returned to Canada and within a week I happened to browse through the latest issue of a certain well known photography magazine at the bookstore and saw the work an American photographer as a featured story. The caption under under an image of a young boy fishing read “Child Slavery”. What concerned me was that picture taken at the place I visited. The captions under the images were misleading. Fishing is one of the main occupation for most locals that live along the coastal cities and towns in Ghana. Children in Ghana help out the family business before or after school. My dad comes from a family of fishermen and he sold fish before or after school to help out. I’m aware there are child slavery happening around the world but to lie about a photo to sell a story like that magazine did was unethical. Unfortunately I didn’t have the courage like this student to do anything about it.

    • this happens all the time. particularly in portions of the world where fact checking is difficult. and particularly in infotainment (inc. photo-centric) publications.

      which is exactly why having a prominent member of the community be so blasé about accuracy in a venue where he has total control is such a big deal.

  3. I think especially now with camera phone”citizen journalism” becoming so commonplace it’s very important to be thorough. When I read his response that he met a lot of people and forgot their names etc, I was kind of surprised. Maybe it’s because I briefly worked as a PJ and have many friends who are PJ’s, that excuse just doesn’t fly. He might not have intended to be deceitful, but you’re right, it’s very sloppy.

  4. “Photojournalism needs magazines, contests, blogs and photographers who lead by example and practice exceptional journalism. If there’s anything to be outraged about, it’s that one of photojournalism’s brightest stars is sloppy __and thinks it’s not a big deal.___”

    Exactly exactly exactly. It’s his name, he wins the award, it’s his problem. It’s not the subject’s fault, the intern’s fault, the competition’s fault.

    No one made him write captions that were unattributed and inaccurate and there is no real pressure (in the competitions) to include specifics, so he could have been vague enough to avoid inaccuracies.

  5. I’d be careful about using Bag News as your source for all of this. As you can see from the comments of the readers like me (stifledgenius), most of us had major issues with their coverage of the story; 1, not interviewing any of the individuals they talked about, 2, never posting any comments from Pellegrin in the first article that would have told his side of things, 3, coming across as a personal attack against Pellegrin himself in the first article instead of presenting facts and letting readers make their own decisions.

    In reply to all our requests for interviews and to get better facts, the second article was published saying they are not in fact journalists, that they are merely commenters on the story, which led me to ask, what’s the story then since no one has seemed to write a comprehensive article about it. Everyone is getting facts from multiple sources and writing what they want about it with an agenda. This created a whole new shit storm in the comments section, especially since sites like this are now pointing to those stories as to where people should be getting their information from. If this is where you got your information from, and formed a decision about Pellegrin’s innocence or guilt, I’d be wary and do more research.

    I could care less about Pellegrin’s guilt or innocence. I care about good journalism and truth being on the internet from sites I follow.

    • The brevity of your comment shows that you didn’t give this the appropriate amount of thought. If it was you who was depicted in a photo story about drugs and gun violence in a neighborhood you did not live in, would it be a mountain or a molehill? That’s rhetorical(look it up). We know the answer. Oh. I’m the subject’s brother, and also a former Marine?

  6. I am amazed at the amount of people who defend this kind of behavior. I do not see anything sloppy in using a photo out of context. I see a mediocre “portrait” made more relevant and look more dramatic by mis-captioning it. If if the caption had been “A former marine takes his gun and ammunition to a gun range, in a suburb of Rochester” nobody would have complained. Of course nobody would have thought the image remarkable either. There really is no excuse for this.
    As for the plagiarism. It is plagiarism no matter whether it was for background or publication.
    If Pellegrin had accepted responsibility for his actions, admitted to making a mistake, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt, but his obfuscation, blame-shifting and attacking the messenger makes me think he is completely unfit to be a photojournalist, no matter how visually stunning his images are.

  7. Scott Rex ely

    On the Lance Armstrong scale for arrogant cheaters he gets an 7.5.
    10 being the highest.

    • Oh please, now you’re comparing Pellegrin’s situation to Armstrong’s doping?
      People, get real.

      • scott Rex Ely

        Hey look, Heros have a responsibility to uphold there own legacies and play by the rules that make them above the mediocre. Magnum ain’t Olan Mills.

    • Spot on, Scott. The more this kind of behaviour slides by as acceptable, the less credibility photojournalism has with the public. Once photojournalism is deemed to be “illustrative,” it looses its value. We won’t see important images on front pages or inside publications, because no-one will take them seriously. The more we condone this kind of behaviour, the more we are all doomed to obscurity. The real people who are let down, however, are the subjects whose stories we should be telling. Shame.

  8. Well, Pellegrin was sloppy– he did what is considered plagiarism in the United States– lifting text and not attributing it. But to see HIS side of it, it is all quite minor and inconsequential. “So I was sloppy, big deal”. He makes an effort to underscore his extensive professional experience, but points out that he’s a photographer (as if to say that’s the only bit that matters). It seems that he, therefore, would be well-versed in appropriately drafting “distro”. That said, I think it’s a tough call whether to say it’s a mountain out of a molehill or a disturbing occurrence. I think it is probably exactly what APE has called it -sloppy journalism- and that’s all you can do with it.

    • Sorry, you can’t put quotes around something he didn’t say, even if it’s coming to you in your imagination.
      Frankly I think he was pissed off at Bag News and was ready to defend. He was, after all, put on defense since he was never asked to be involved in the ‘discussion’ in the first place.

      Plagiarism in the USA? It’s not like he wrote an academic paper or an article for a newspaper or a book for God’s sake. It’s background statistics for a photo award entry! Man, people, put this all into perspective!

      • Loretta, I’m glad that we agree on this. And yes, you’re right. If I were actually attributing that quote to him, it would be incorrect. But I didn’t attribute the quote to him. It stands alone in a free sentence. I guarantee you after living in Italy for almost 15 years and having done a year of graduate school here, and also courses at University of Bologna and University of Florence, what is considered plagiarism in the United States is -not- treated the same way here, not considered the same way here, it’s just different. But substitute the word “plagiarism” for ANY other word that has a different meaning and context from country to country. There is absolutely no value judgement attached to that. And in fact, all I said was that he was sloppy. He did not use that exact word to describe what he did, but he did say he wasn’t as precise as he could have been- he could have done differently (in the writing aspect), he didn’t expect it to be submitted. That’s what sloppy means in the United States. So call it whatever you want, we both agree, it boils down to nothing more than lack of precision in writing some notes.

        • ok yes… i think we do agree. i know, i studied in italy too… although not 15 years.

  9. For all of those who are essentially saying “this is no big deal’ , there are multiple cases photographers and writers who have lost either their staff jobs or agency contracts for doing exactly what Pellegrin did here.

    It does not help Pellegrin’s case that his responses so far read like a second rate politician’s inept scrambling at self-justification and accusatory finger wagging at his accusers.

    What should the various competitions do?

    Perhaps they should rescind the awards and ban him for awhile? It sends one very corrupting message when some lowly stringer is hung out to dry but a “star” of documentary and photojournalism gets a free pass for multiple ethical lapses.

    • Precisely. People have lost jobs for cloning out details that had nothing to do with the message of a photo, esthetic manipulations if you like, but changing the context of a photo is not a big deal? I don’t get it.

    • uhm…rescind the awards and BAN him? from what??? This isn’t a club! It’s photography and any guy on the street is doing it right now.

      Who cares about these stupid awards.

  10. Being a Rochester photographer and resident, having the Magnum togs run through here last year wasn’t any sort of journalism so much as it was a bunch of middle-aged burnouts being carted between canned photo-oops. What I think they were really looking for was alcohol and nookie.

  11. agreed, “mountain out of a mole hill”. this is something to talk about, think about, but the extreme judgements in some of these responses is completely unwarranted and lame…

  12. Edward Keating at The NY TIMES was booted from the staff, despite his Pulitzer, for supposedly posing a couple of kids with guns in Buffalo NY. What is it with Upstate New York anyway?

    This instance, with Pellegrin, kind of makes you wonder what other tripe Magnum is serving us.

    that is all…

  13. With so many people on high horses it’s a wonder there’s anyone left for them to look down on. And you know the lines are getting blurred in photojournalism when one of the world’s most acclaimed advertising photographers wins first prize for portraiture in the World Press Photo competition.

    • While I’m no big fan of that particular picture, I think it should be noted that Nadav Kander is not “one of the world’s most acclaimed advertising photographers” but one of the world’s most acclaimed portrait photographers who, like any other successful photographer, happens to get a lot of advertising commissions. There is no line whatsoever being blurred when a portrait photographer wins first prize in a “staged portraiture” competition.

  14. Miah Rothmer

    “If there’s anything to be outraged about, it’s that one of photojournalism’s brightest stars is sloppy and thinks it’s not a big deal” . I stole this from the writer from above!
    This is the most important statement!
    Sort of questions his past work? what else was set up? “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” , was a quote I once heard an editor at AP say.
    But sadly the world of Magnum, and all the press contests, publication in print and online will sweep this under the carpet, and say oh well! The days of true photojournalism editors with their foot on your throat are gone sadly and the MAGNUM Elders should be really pissed off at one of their top photographers! Let the Truth be the Prejudice.

  15. “If there’s anything to be outraged about, it’s that one of photojournalism’s brightest stars is sloppy and thinks it’s not a big deal.”

    Exactly. I’m sorry but a pencil and paper, or better yet, digital recorder, cheap all things considered. Record your notes, CYA. The excuse, ‘ I don’t remember’, just doesn’t fly these days. Staged vs posed is what we are seeing… And folks…6 miles from the Crescent…depending on where it is, can be outside of Rochester city limits, across the river, etc.. Sloppy is being nice.

  16. Scott Bryant

    I agree with John Long, the NPPA’s ethics chair, when he says that “Truth” is a bad way to frame ethical debate. Truth, especially with a capital “T”, is a loaded word and gets people riled up. Journalism, at its core, is interpretive in nature. It’s our job to try and frame issues for our audience – to sort things out from the chaos. And that often involves making some judgement calls and even making creative choices, at times, for the sake of craftsmanship – craftsmanship that facilitates understanding, that is.

    Long suggests the terms “fairness” and “accuracy” to frame ethical debates. In this case, it wasn’t just an example of “sloppy” journalism. It was flat out lazy. The photographer was only thinking about “his” pictures, not about the audience or his subjects. Does that even qualify as journalism?

    Captions and background information count! Photographs have an incredibly powerful ability to move us, and those emotional impressions stay with us, as memory is largely visual. However, images must be placed in their proper context in order for the audience to fully understand the significance of those images. As journalists, we have to help connect the dots. Captions including a name and a place and a date, whenever possible, lend substantial credibility to visual journalism. In fact, it’s necessary for the “journalism” part of photojournalism. Isn’t it?

    • scott Rex Ely

      The problem with Jim’s response is it’s the trust me I know him defense, which wreaks of good ol’ boy tribalism.
      Principals were compromised when they didn’t need to be.
      Sorry, it was beyond sloppy, it was exceptionalism at play at the expense of integrity.

  17. Rob, ABSOLUTELY. You nailed it with your last graf.

    World Press, in the vindication of their decision to uphold the award, completely dodges the real issue of a totally set-up photo where the subject was intentionally misrepresented and used as a prop to illustrate something he had little or no connection to.

    The photo itself misleads … and the caption could (maybe) have fixed that, but that is not the point. The WPP completely misses the mark with their statement — “the jury was not fundamentally mislead by the picture in the story” The viewer certainly is, if they thought Shane was a criminal or shady character from the Crescent, as the picture implies. The photo implies impending violence or use of force with firearms, defending ones’ self while under siege in the Crescent. A sinister looking setting with dramatic lighting. Except the subject isn’t violent, owns the guns legally, isn’t a bad guy or otherwise involved in shady stuff, and doesn’t live in the Crescent. (As one commenter on BJP’s Facebook post said ” It makes him look like a vigilante, in the street at night. Nothing portrait about it.”) And the photo wasn’t taken in the Crescent, which the story was about. He was trying to ILLUSTRATE (not document) a preconceived Euro-centric idea of “gun culture” — an assumption and vague euphemism, and you know what happens when you assume… Now, if you want to talk about a culture of violence, that is more measurable. Why didn’t Pellegrin do a better job of documenting that, if it’s true?

    The issue is the Subjective (often with the influence of the photographer) vs Objective — the found image (to the extent possible). The trouble as I see it is when one is confused with the other, overtly or covertly. There needs to be a clear understanding about what the viewer is looking at, and how much influence and control the photographer has exerted on the scene. Is it art, or journalism? There is a trend now towards “subjective/interpretive documentary” work which to me is an oxymoron. Did it really happen as portrayed, or not? And how much influence did the photographer exert on that image to make it happen? Critical issues, when people tend to believe what they see (or not). When too many cases of fake images are revealed, I think the public’s natural tendency is to doubt. That puts credible, honest work at risk of being dismissed out of hand — the ultimate tragedy when photojournalism has already been declared dying.

    I don’t know how many people outside these discussions/threads really care about this. I hope many, but if journalists don’t police their ranks and call out deceptive work, the credibility of journalism goes further down the toilet. The public trust of “the media” is already at an all-time low. I just saw a TV ad for a cellphone which proclaimed that all 1 million users are “photojournalists.” Wow. With news magazines dying and good photo editors walking the plank, who will validates this “photojournalism” as truthful?

  18. why can’t we call a spade a spade? he lied. i’m disappointed whenever this happens to me about any subject, big or small.

    really, the torn banners of trust in photojournalism and/or media credibility is just nostalgia. maybe photojournalism is dead. maybe not a single person trusts the media. i still don’t like being lied to.

    how is it that there are people who don’t mind when others lie to them?

    • How do you know he lied? How are all of those who say he lied sure he lied?? That is what surprises me more than anything. You are assuming you know he did this on purpose.

  19. @Davin, I didn’t mean to be snarky. But I am a former press photographer who is frustrated at the decline in job opportunities for photojournalists. I think this watering down of ethical standards and the insecure pandering to aesthetic demands (real or imaginary) is a contributor to the current “state” of photojournalism. Good luck.

  20. Unfortunately, the vetting of worthy content is the very last thing on the mind of many newspaper and some magazine owners looking for the cheapest way to fill their websites and shrinking news hole. Newspapers and many magazines have laid off many of their photo editors. Experienced photographers who can mentor and help younger photojournalists shape their ethics have been discarded as inessential.

    I totally agree with Heather that the current state of affairs in photojournalism with it’s declining job opportunities is much to blame for the slipping of standards. Paolo Pellegrin’s sloppiness is nothing new. But it is much easier in today’s world for ethical lapses and sloppy work to get into print and online.

    As the TV commercial says, ” A billion roaming photojournalists with smart phones, capturing the world” and to which I add not a photo editor in sight to vet them nor a copy editor to verify the caption…

  21. I can understand why personal ethics fail; the competition is tough; the ability to grab an image from across the planet makes compiling news to fill the pages easier, compared to when film was the only medium in use to capture the story; and making a living is pretty tough.

    Bottom line Give back the awards and get your stuff together. I am sure publishers will think three times before using any of Pellegrin’s work or ask for additional images to verify the facts.

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