Photo Contest Bashing: That Time of Year

By Jim Colton

In my 40 plus years in this industry, I cannot remember a time when there was so much fodder regarding photo contest winners. And this year is no exception. With only one major photo contest completed (World Press Photo) and one partially completed (POYi) there have already been dozens of stories claiming everything from manipulation to plagiarism.

Frankly, I cannot recall a single year where the World Press Photo of the Year has not been slammed by someone who has taken offense to some element of the image… it content, composition, subject matter, toning….you name it.

Whereas I believe it is highly valuable to have discussions regarding matters such as ethics and manipulation, I also believe it is highly destructive to make accusations without hearing ALL sides to a story, which is exactly what happened this year to Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin regarding his award winning work at World Press and POYi.

One story made wholehearted accusations of misrepresentation and plagiarism WITHOUT contacting Pellegrin for a response. That in itself is more troubling to me than the accusations. The only one who got it right from what I can tell is the venerable Donald Winslow from the NPPA who actually ASKED for a clarification...and OMG…guess what?... he got one.

Whether we all agree with the statement Pellegrin and Magnum released is another matter, but to me, that’s inconsequential. The fact that he was asked AND responded is what is important here. I have known Paolo and have been familiar with his work for many years. He is an extremely talented photojournalist and his work has been recognized by major photography contests for a reason. It’s damn good!

Another image that has been getting bashed this year is the World Press Photo of the Year by Swedish newspaper photographer Paul Hansen of Dagens Nyheter. The image in question shows the bodies of two children who were killed by a missile strike being carried to a mosque for burial through the streets of Gaza. In the opinion of this photo editor, it was one of the most powerful images of the conflict, filled with emotion, horror and sadness. If you are not moved by the content of the image, you probably don’t have a pulse.

Yet detractors don’t see its power….rather than appreciating the content, they look for anomalies and reasons to find fault…calling it everything from over manipulated to it looking like a movie poster. I was not a very good photographer when I first started in the business but loved the craft so much that my heart and soul went into picture editing so I could see the world through other photographer’s eyes. And I am confident, that there is not a single photographer out there who wouldn’t be proud to have taken that picture.

So yes, discussion is healthy. Asking questions and continuing the dialog and making sure our ethical guidelines and morals are not crossed have never been more essential in our ever changing industry. But let us do so in a responsible way. We are photo JOURNALISTS. We must think and act before we react and make sure we are treating these issues in a fair and unbiased way.

Sure there will be pictures I like that you hate…and vice versa….that’s the nature of the business…it’s totally subjective. But for God’s sake, can we not also take the time to enjoy and appreciate the masterful work that is being produced by some incredibly talented and dedicated photojournalists before we burn them at the cross?