"Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story" this was a cautionary joke of my Dad's, who was a journalist for the Financial Times in Israel in the 70's and 80's. But it seems that in photojournalism, this is no longer funny.
Last week the World Press Photo award had to yet again make an embarrassing U turn over its Contemporary Issues award winner Giovanni Troilo's Charleroi story.
The photographer had staged photos depicting events that had happened in Charleroi, and the mayor of the Belgian city had complained that the city was being portrayed in a very negative light. The World Press upheld the award claiming that the "The contest requires photojournalists do not stage pictures to show something that would otherwise have not taken place." the last bit being important (though slightly straying into the realm of quantum physics). But then in a further twist several days later it emerged that one of the photos was staged in a different town and the photographer was stripped of his award.
It seems that the World Press, which had for years become trapped in the straightjacket of dated war and news self referencing imagery was trying to engage in new ways of telling stories. But had been caught out by 'editorialised' photography.
Photo manipulation and staging is part of contemporary photography, being both widespread in Landscape and Fashion in particular, but photojournalism, setting itself up as a sacred cow, believed that their photography is pure and free of manipulation, either before or after the photo had been taken.
Do we really still believe that an image is fact or is it more just a subjective narrative, and does it matter?
It all boils down to trust and integrity. I'm often sent to create images that are idealised or a partial visualisations of what is before me, but they are often illustrations of a story that is being told, or a way of drawing attention to a subject. And I'm assuming that people seeing these photos read it this way. They are portraits - which are fundamentally a subjective views
However, photojournalist trade on being at least Witness to an event or its aftermath and often, crucially, they are the only ones - as journalists largely collate opinions and facts from secondary sources. A news or documentary photo story that drifts so far into fictionalisation and staging is really just little more than an opinion piece or blog. Leaving the news in the hands of Citizen photographers with their hunger for death, violence and celebrity. I would prefer my news feed to be more rich and complex than that.
By removing themselves as 'Witness' photojournalists might find that they have photoshopped themselves out of existence. Which would be a shame.
But equally maybe the long and unquestioned view of photography as 'fact' rather than 'comment' is now very dated.