Last Wednesday, World Press Photo (WPP) officially stripped photojournalist Giovanni Troilo of the First Prize in Contemporary Issues awarded to him in February for the 10-photo series The Dark Heart of Europe, the New York Times reported.
Troilo’s images centered on Charleroi, a Belgian town near Brussels. They depicted it as a city jaded by shuttered industry, rising unemployment, and rampant crime. “The roads, once blooming and neat, appear today desolated and abandoned,” he wrote in a statement, going on to say that “perverse and sick sex, race hate, neurotic obesity and the abuse of psychiatric drugs seem to be the only cures…”
The series infuriated the town’s mayor, who called it “a serious distortion of reality that undermines the city and its inhabitants, as well as the profession of photojournalist.” He claimed Troilo had staged some of the photographs — including one of a couple having sex in the back of a car, one party of which turned out to be the photographer’s own cousin — and demanded WPP revoke the award.
The organization responded promptly with an investigation. It had already suffered a headache over manipulated images in February when it found that 20% of its finalists had doctored their images after shooting.
But after careful scrutiny, the WPP concluded on March 2 that Troilo hadn’t broken any competition rules. In a statement, it explained that the photographer had been honest from the start about his relation to the person in the image, but that this context hadn’t come across to the public as the organization had rewritten the photographer’s original captions. As for the supposed staging, Troilo’s cousin had given him permission to follow him on a night he was already planning to go out and have sex. “Whether the photographer had been involved or not, the cousin had planned to have sex in the car,” the WPP wrote. It also concluded that a remote-control flash the photographer had placed inside the back of the car didn’t break any competition rules.
Many within the photojournalism community felt differently, and the photojournalism festival Visa Pour L’Image announced it would protest staged photographs by not showing any World Press Photos. But as far as the WPP was concerned, the case seemed closed until Tuesday, when the organization found out that one of Troilo’s images, featuring artist Vadim Vosters, had been taken near Brussels and not in Charleroi, as the photographer had stated. Trioli admitted his error, but he told the New York Times it was an unintentional mistake made “out of distraction” when he and an assistant were scrambling to meet the competition deadline. For WPP, whose reputation was already at risk, it was the last nail in the coffin.
“The World Press Photo Contest must be based on trust in the photographers who enter their work and in their professional ethics,” WPP wrote in a statement released last Wednesday. “We have checks and controls in place, of course, but the contest simply does not work without trust. We now have a clear case of misleading information and this changes the way the story is perceived. A rule has now been broken and a line has been crossed.” Italian photographer Giulio Di Sturco was granted the award in Troilo’s place.
Whether or not Troilo purposely misled the organization, the fiasco shows how deeply the integrity of a photograph relies on the integrity of the photographer. As in journalism, a series of minor mistakes (or white lies) can break public trust enough to discredit images that would otherwise have been quite powerful.
And given the pushback from the photographic community, which disagreed with WPP’s conclusions about Troilo’s staging, the debacle also exposes how greatly technology has complicated the seemingly simple mission of telling true stories. Prestigious photographers still disagree where the boundaries lay, leaving those without ethical qualms to manipulate them as needed. The medium will undoubtedly suffer until they are clearly established.
But hopefully, something good will come out of the mess. WPP has announced a panel discussion tackling such important questions, to be held in Amsterdam during the April awards week.