— Lights and Lines

Staged Truthfulness and Paolo Pellegrin

A Prize-Winning Ethics Lesson? is a NYT Lens Blog post that focuses on a single image that stirred controversy within the photography world. Paolo Pellegrin, a renowned Magnum photographer is accused of inaccuracy and misinterpretation.

Most of all he is considered culpable of providing us with a distorted view of reality: a portray of a man posing with a shotgun is not what it seems: he is not part of the “Crescent” criminal underbelly the project tries to describe. He has nothing to do with the gun culture of this deprived area of Rochester and he is not even an ex military sniper as Pellegrin initially stated. Yet this is certainly a powerful image.

In an age of “Staged documentary Photography” David Gonzales (@dgbxny) and James Estrin (@JamesEstrin) raise some good questions about the idea of truthfulness and general photography ethics.
Most of all, what caught my attention is the concept of outsider’s unfamiliarity used in the article, and I quote:

“…critics of Mr. Pellegrin’s project have said it was his very nature as an outsider that produced a distorted view of the area…

Aren’t we always outsiders? Unless we are working on a autobiographical project there will always be a barrier between us and the subject. So the question is: can we really pretend to describe a reality that is not part of our lives in an objective and credible way? Possibly: it’s a matter of research and accuracy.
In order to gain this credibility photographers need to focus on a specific subject, a niche, i.e. the Crescent area of Rochester.

So did Pellegrin here, but it seems he forgot the concept of truthfulness.

Paolo Pellegrin - The Crescent

Paolo Pellegrin – The Crescent

The fact of being an “outsider” is something every photographer will always have to deal with but the “point of view” issue is particularly relevant when it comes to press photography. Last year the World Press Photo of the Year 2011 caused another debate about the idea of filtering the arab world through Western eyes and values. On Conscientious, Joerg Colberg (@jmcolberg) posted The Problem with Western Press Photo, an article I recommend reading. At a certain point the writer states:

“…press photographs are not necessarily intended to make people feel good. The role of press photographs is to inform us about events in a news context.”

Sometimes there is a fine line between Staged Documentary Photography where the photographer’s act more as an artist and Press Photography. Initially I related this image by Pellegrin to the same problematic. He staged it and he managed to create a powerful portrait that adds up to the whole series’ feel. If no info came out we would probably never thought it was a fake and we would be judging it only from a quality perspective. The problem, apart from the information leaked, is that he did not ask someone related to the Crescent to pose for him (that, in my opinion, is acceptable), but a complete outsider: what was staged became fake. Truthfulness was lost.

It’ interesting to note how in this case, Pellegrin played with the “outsider’s unfamiliarity” of his audience: being outsiders ourselves we have to believe in the photographer’s objectivity. So the concept works in both ways. Is there a solution?

Lately I saw an interesting take on this: Light from the Middle East is an exhibition at the V&A in London that tried to increase accuracy by cutting the middle man and delivered an interesting series of Middle East focused photographs produced by photographers from the area. I thought it was quite a refreshing approach as there was no filtering involved in this case, at least not from a cultural point of view. The photographer’s subjectivity is still present but it’s made clear, specifically in the Recording section of the exhibition where the reliability of the medium is questioned.

And so, to put an end to this Sunday train of thoughts I will just state the obvious: the audience can be easily tricked and sometimes to positive results. However, when the “press” tag is attached to a body of work I still require a certain element of truthfulness, even if staged.

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  1. Neil Colton says: March 19, 20131:40 am

    Fascinating dialogue, Marco. I completely missed this controversy, but as a former working working photojournalist, I do recall the occasional temptation to ‘tweak’ a shot by directing the subjects. An urge resisted, successfully. As a professional press photographer, it’s called fraud, regardless of what agency you represent. Documentary photography allows more artistic license, which is the saving grace for this Pellegrini piece.



  2. marco says: March 21, 20133:40 pm

    Hi Neil, I am glad you liked the article. Sometimes there is quite a thin line between Documentary and Press, specifically in this case. I suppose this is one of the reason why it stirred such controversy.

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