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Ethics of prize-winning photo debated

By dpreview staff on Feb 25, 2013 at 20:22 GMT

What happens when a Magnum photographer creates a documentary image that does not depict the reality indicated by the caption? What happens when that same image wins critical acclaim as part of a portfolio that garners the creator an international Photographer of the Year award? A controversy in the world of photojournalism is the result, with many accusing photographer Paolo Pellegrin of violating basic journalistic ethics, including plagiarizing the background description of his series from a decade-old piece written in the New York Times.

This image has garnered both critical acclaim and criticism for Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin.

The original caption of the image above as it appears on the POYI web site reads,'The Crescent, Rochester USA, 2012. A former US Marine corp sniper with his weapon. Rochester, NY USA 2012.'

The problem is that the subject, Shane Keller - photographed in his garage -  was never a Marine sniper, but a former photojournalism student and combat photographer. In addition, the Crescent neighborhood of Rochester, an urban area marked by high crime is not the one in which Mr. Keller was photographed.

In his defense, Mr. Pellegrin has responded by telling the New York Times lens blog that the incident is a result of a genuine misunderstanding and inadvertent posting of research information that was never meant to be made public. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, this begs the larger question of whether the award-winning image garnered critical acclaim because of its content or its context. Can you even separate the two? Use the comments section to let us know what you think.


Total comments: 151
By WilliamJ (Feb 26, 2013)

At that point of the "discussion" everything seems to have been said:
1) the caption doesn't fit the requirements of a "good and sound journalism".
2) the picture does not depict a real event, seems to have been staged, doesn't take place where it was said to.
3) the photo is of poor quality - sorry Mr Pellegrin, but you surely know it already - and probably doesn't deserve even to be published.

For all that reasons, the photo should have not win any prize.

But there is a question that stands above everything: who the hell are those judges who get - from who ? - the right to tell what is good, what is bad, what deserves an award in spite of all sort of rules or ethics infringements ? That kind of jury reminds me furiously the ones who judge skaters during the figure skate trophees or olympic events. As they seem to have a lot in common, I would not be surprised to learn they were dead drunk during the votes, as were some olympic judges in some occasions.

1 upvote
By taffytubby (Feb 26, 2013)

The cans of beer in the corner might have rung alarm bells for the judges. Syria isn't totally alcohol free, but in a war zone they surely they would not be stacked neatly by the door, so the guys can crack a can after shooting at some poor soul (no-one is truly innocent in this was or any other). Snipers don't go round with a 12 gauge gun either, hardly a sniper's precision weapon eh? This is a poor image full of warning signs and of little technical merit. Looks like the judges need a kick up the backside for such sloppy scrutiny.

Rob Bernhard
By Rob Bernhard (Feb 26, 2013)

What in the world does Syria have to do with this photo?

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Dave Beaman
By Dave Beaman (Feb 27, 2013)

I believe the stacked bottles on the right are of Peak Antifreeze or related product not beer

By bfenster (Feb 26, 2013)

Looks like typical Liberal BS propaganda to me.

By Agalliac (Feb 26, 2013)

"By Timmbits (37 min ago)

I looked at this photo, and tried to understand why it is so good that it won an award at all.
OK, the caption and description put it into context, and make it more relevant.
If you accept the scammer's explanations, then it takes the photo out of the context it was put into, and takes away some of it's value.
The only logical conclusion, is that even if you account for explanations and corrections, and accept those... acceptance does take away much of it's value and pertinence.
In either case, I see no other option but disqualification and trowing it into the rubbish bin."

By Peiasdf (Feb 26, 2013)

The New York Times then change the background description to "Syrian freedom fighter defending his home from Assad forces in the outskirt of Damascus" and put it on the front page.

Journalism and journalistic ethics are just an act like honesty to politician and drug-free-oath for pro-bikers.

By Timmbits (Feb 26, 2013)

I looked at this photo, and tried to understand why it is so good that it won an award at all.
OK, the caption and description put it into context, and make it more relevant.
If you accept the scammer's explanations, then it takes the photo out of the context it was put into, and takes away some of it's value.
The only logical conclusion, is that even if you account for explanations and corrections, and accept those... acceptance does take away much of it's value and pertinence.
In either case, I see no other option but disqualification and trowing it into the rubbish bin.

1 upvote
By Suntan (Feb 26, 2013)

I think I agree with you.

Simply put, the photo itself is just not that good. Certainly if it is a staged shot in the man's garage, there is little to no merit to it.

The only reason people found merit to it is that they mistaken thought the photographer was putting himself in harm's way by photographing a sketchy looking individual in a real-life situation.


1 upvote
By igruh (Feb 26, 2013)

1) the shot itself isn't good from the composition POV
2) the shot was not a fast capture of some moment which will never happen
3) the shot is, say, studio shot (the person was asked to pose)
4) the person and place are fake
What is in the rest? Completely nothing. Wag the dog, wag the dog...

1 upvote
Dan Wagner
By Dan Wagner (Feb 26, 2013)

My opinion is that the photo in question isn't good enough to win a contest. Second if the selection of the photo as the winning entry violates the rules of the contest then it should be disqualified. If the rules don't cover this contingency then the photo should remain as the winner. Third, if the photographer says specific photo info wrong as a result of human error, then absent any proof to the contrary this has to be accepted. Accept his apology and move on. Lastly the winning image garnered critical acclaim because those judging it judged it not for it being a great photo, which should be the prime directive of any photo contest, but because it advance some popular pseudo parameters and fed into their world view. In my opinion judges who corrupt the process of picking the best photo because it's exactly that the best photo are the true villains. And hey, like most other contests of this nature, why not vet and fact check the winning entry?

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
By Josh152 (Feb 26, 2013)


Comment edited 1 minute after posting
1 upvote
Adrian Joseph Roy
By Adrian Joseph Roy (Feb 26, 2013)

I can't even understand why this is up for debate. This photo is pure s*&! on its own. A compelling context would be the only thing that would make it worthy of award, as is the case with plenty of award winning photographs. If context can be completely fabricated, why not content as well?

Example: Who has the time or the courage to lay in the middle of a war zone to capture compelling images of soldiers dying for a cause?? Just take a picture of someone firing a gun in an alley from a safe suburb somewhere else in the world, and Photoshop all the gory details in afterwards. Hey, this photojournalism thing is easy peasy!

Comment edited 30 seconds after posting
By jerrith (Feb 26, 2013)

James Nachtwey does this. His foto's are therefore very compelling and always tell a true story. Just google his name and you will find a lot of genuinly compelling images.
The above foto is no where near the same level as his work.

Comment edited 16 seconds after posting
By CameraLabTester (Feb 26, 2013)

It's amazing how anybody can conjure up a story out of any image from a camera these days...even from utter rubbish like this one.



Why not establish a contest " Photographer Fantasy Of The Year" award?

The contestant can choose any picture from his/her recycling bin and concoct up a moving tale of lies and deceit!

Wouldn't that be awesome!


By dmanthree (Feb 26, 2013)

No controversy here. This is a lie. Plain and simple. And not even a good photo, to boot.

Joe Tam
By Joe Tam (Feb 26, 2013)

Another controversy. This time it's removing referee with photoshop(or equivalent).

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 7 minutes after posting
lorenzo de medici
By lorenzo de medici (Feb 26, 2013)

The title of the prize winning series is "The Crescent." This is one of the photos in the series. It is a staged photo, not taken in the Crescent, and the subject is misrepresented by the caption. It is an example of dishonest photojournalism. Pellegrin should go home to Italy and photograph some struggling neighborhood in Rome. I'm sure they exist. Perhaps he would do a better job of representing his work honestly.

1 upvote
By duckling (Feb 26, 2013)

I read the comments attentively and come to the conclusion that most of them indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of photojournalism. World Press Photo awards are hardly about aesthetics. They are all about content, morals and emotions. I find Paolo Pellegrin's winning series effective in conveying a story of poverty, violence and hopelessness. The formalistic treatment of the images (monochromatic, dark, contrasty) matches the content and provides aesthetic context. Quite convincing IMO, if a bit of a cliche.
I think the photograph in question strengthens the series by providing a second focal point to the story. There is nothing wrong in including a posed entry in a photo-essay as long as the photographer does not try to conceal its nature. I believe the photographer about misjudging his location in a city he doesn't know. The inaccuracy regarding the protagonist's function in the military is unfortunate, but hardly intentional. Those mistakes do not change the massage.

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
1 upvote
By Grevture (Feb 26, 2013)

Most often in discussions about image manipulation, the debate seem to get firmly stuck on what can be done with image editing.

However, the most drastic manipulations of the message or impressions conveyed through images is often done with text outside the actual image - captions and headlines - rather then with image editing ...

Comment edited 43 seconds after posting
By Picturenaut (Feb 26, 2013)

This is a wonderful shot, but as a German journalist (no photo journalist) I share the ethical values of neatly investigated and presented stories. I love Paolo Pellegrin's work and I do hope that he can clear the questions arising about this story. Otherwise I'd be quite disappointed.

By madeinlisboa (Feb 26, 2013)

Nice scene from Dukes of Hazzard. An Instagram would make it a killer photo...
The critics and juries are getting better and better...

1 upvote
By Lea5 (Feb 26, 2013)

That staged image won a price, because it is political with a liberal message. They want to sell this man in the image as the true low IQ bearded american who is ugly, fat and owns lots of big guns and is a thread to the american public.
What kind of people sitting as judges in those juries? Most of them are guilty white bourgeoisie liberals, who wants to ban guns and exterminate old american values. Disgusting people. I know many of them.

Central Fla
By Central Fla (Feb 26, 2013)

Everything is allowed in todays liberal society except yesterdays people, and look at how we are doing. I would like to see Edward Deming's statistical quality control applied to America.

Turnip Chops
By Turnip Chops (Feb 26, 2013)

And what, pray tell, is the old American value that assault rifle toting men wish to preserve? That is if you insist on making a political point!

Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Feb 26, 2013)

Shane Keller resembles the typical gun owner (or camera buff!) more than NRA's former poster-hero Moses (Charlton Heston). If image-manipulation is good for the goose, why not the gander too?

By blesaster (Feb 26, 2013)

a staged photo can be a great photo (but this is not the case) but it'll never be considered photojournalism

By funnelwebmaster (Feb 26, 2013)

Kinda fat for a marine...

1 upvote
By nicola (Feb 26, 2013)

Was it a case of misjudgment or was there no better work been presented?
Whatever the case, this picture is totally uninspiring and does not tell any story.
While I am baffled that it won a prize, I am even more baffled that it was submitted by a photographer of his professional stature.
Be it fake or not, it has nothing to say, except that it portrays a guy who looks also quite awkward at holding a gun ....
Go figure ...

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
By NickR (Feb 26, 2013)

The other pictures in the series are quite good.

By Photog74 (Feb 26, 2013)

This is (some of) what Paolo Pellegrin had to say about the issue:

"Here is the caption for that picture: 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon.' Shane agrees that he is a former Marine and that he is standing with his weapon in Rochester. My firm recollection is that Shane described himself that day as a sniper. He may have misspoken; I may have misunderstood; or he may have used the word 'sniper' in a manner that was not meant to imply formal status as a Marine Corps Sniper (he spoke for a long time about sniping). In any event, if Shane was not actually a Sniper in the Marine Corps the caption should be changed to read 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former US Marine Corps member with his weapon.'"

More at

Controversies aside, what I don't understand is how a crooked picture of a lad posing with a gun could possibly "garner critical acclaim."

By chopsteeks (Feb 26, 2013)

This is not photojournalism !!

This is an episode for a reality show !!

1 upvote
By InTheMist (Feb 26, 2013)

It's the worse kind of photojournalism. It's staged, it's misleading, and over-processed and has its own agenda.

By Albino_BlacMan (Feb 26, 2013)

To everyone who didn't read the linked articles this photo did not win a prize.

It was part of a series (documentary, story whatever you want to call it) on "The Crescent" in Rochester. It wasn't even that series that won the prize (I believe the series was done by a group of Magnum Photographers, not just Pellegrin).

Pellegrin won the prize for his overall work this year (if you look at the link it shows photos from a number of documentaries.

Anyways this photo made up 2% of a photo documentary which made up some small portion of Pellegrin's 2012 work. So critiquing the photo doesn't add much to the discussion...

1 upvote
By Photog74 (Feb 26, 2013)

While that is correct I still wonder why the author gave the title, "Ethics of PRIZE-WINNING PHOTO debated" to the article - if the photo did not win a prize.

By NickR (Feb 26, 2013)

Not true. He won a prize for his picture story on the Crescent area in Rochester. This is part of that series.

This photo has nothing to do with the Crescent in Rochester. This guy is a former combat photographer Marine who lives in the suburbs and is a photography student in Rochester. It was taken in the suburbs.

By narddogg81 (Feb 26, 2013)

This is what happens when 'art' is divorced from aesthetics. If the judges had not been so up their own asses and realized this is a terribly uninteresting and poorly executed photo, they would not be in the embarrassing situation of having chosen it for an award based on false pretenses. It should never have won anything because its lousy, regardless of the 'message' its conveying. Were there no sufficiently political photos submitted that were also well done?

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By abi170845 (Feb 26, 2013)

He won just because he is Paolo Pellegrin.

By CyberAngel (Feb 26, 2013)

a FORMER sniper could nowadays have a shotgun instead ;-)

sack the judges

1 upvote
By hiro_pro (Feb 26, 2013)

that was my first thought when i originally saw the photo. What would a trained/self-respecting sniper be doing with a shotgun?

By MrPrime (Feb 27, 2013)

How on earth such a poor photo won I don't know, but for me it discredits the judges not the photographer.

By Edmscan (Feb 26, 2013)

I am a photojournalist student .. and I have to agree, Is this a joke ? That photo sucks in my opinion. It is not something that I would consider as worthy of any award.

By valacama (Feb 26, 2013)

Is this a joke? THIS photo won a prize??!!? Come on, if anyone with half a brain has looked at the journalistic photos from the last year, there many, many images that are stunning, moving, beautiful and well composed.
This photo says nothing other than, "i am walking with my gun and my ammo belt." So what? No emotional content. No capturing a "moment". WTF?
With so many hard working photo journalists doing amazing work out there in really trying places in the world, This piece of mediocrity wins Photographer of the Year?
I suppose the sun will rise in the West tomorrow morn.

George 53
By George 53 (Feb 26, 2013)

This image is as about as exciting as a dogs rear view. I have no idea who the judges were but maybe I could become an award winner if I entered my deleted images.

Shame on Paolo Pellegrin for his conduct which tarnishes the good name of Magnum.

By skytripper (Feb 26, 2013)

If this is an actual "award-winning image", then the answer to DPReview's question is "No!" No way is this image even interesting unless the situation it depicts is factual and newsworthy.

By luxborealis (Feb 26, 2013)

Crap like this happens ALL THE TIME. Photographs are acclaimed more for a cutsey or gritty title or the backstory of the image or the backstory of the photographer rather than the image, itself. Vivian Maier comes to mind. Her recently found photographs were acclaimed all over the world yet didn't amount to anything terribly original if you took away the backstory. So, once again, is it the art or the story?
Be that as it may, photography is only following what has been done forever with all other media. Painters have been doing set-ups for centuries.

You see, we are victims of our own delusions in that we still believe photographs are real when they are nothing more than constructs of the artists mind. What we need to do is to STOP BELIEVING PHOTOGRAPHS ARE REAL in the first place!!!!!

Comment edited 54 seconds after posting
1 upvote
George Fotiadis
By George Fotiadis (Feb 26, 2013)

Very much true.

By mandophoto (Feb 27, 2013)

@luxborealis: In regards to Vivian Maier, it is you who is wrong.

Comment edited 24 seconds after posting
By bobbarber (Feb 26, 2013)

True story--I saw an iconic photo of John Lennon submitted as a local photographer's own work at a small county fair in Colorado. It won second prize.

1 upvote
By aris14 (Feb 26, 2013)

Was this pic earned the man behind the lens a prize?
I don't know if the award giving committee is more "criminal" than he is...!

1 upvote
By Funduro (Feb 26, 2013)

Journalist have been busted as plagiarist more often now, thanks to Google. Heck even two consecutive German heads of education have resigned because of plagiarist Doctoral thesis & the like. So it's not surprising this photographer staged this photo and gave false narrative about it.

By JJ10 (Feb 26, 2013)

What is that image you are using as your avatar? Are you the pot or what?

Mr Physics
By Mr Physics (Feb 26, 2013)

No. He's simply honoring a photographer of significance.

TN Args
By TN Args (Feb 26, 2013)

What an ordinary photo. Terrible really.

By crsantin (Feb 26, 2013)

All ethics aside, this is simply an extremely uninteresting image. I would hope the rest of his award-winning portfolio consisted of images so strong that he was given a pass on this one, otherwise it is shameful that this is part of a winning entry.

By Duckysaurus (Feb 26, 2013)

Considering it is a "staged photo," the lighting and framing could have been better. ^^

All the photos in any serious composition should have the captions hidden from the judges--captions definitely lead to bias and take away from real judging of photographs.

Paulo Ferreira
By Paulo Ferreira (Feb 26, 2013)

Ethics is a very tired word and in journalism is bordering exhaustion.Why should photography and photographers be exempt of having their own Lance Armstrongs? Or Piers Morgan with fake photos in the Mirror about soldiers abusive behaviour in Iraq? As in the cyclist, the fault resides originally on a desire to win at any cost and be hailed as the best in your "profession". For that you need people/public and these are always, without exception gullible, joining in the universal acclaim as they are part and parcel of it, part of the dream. Lance is now (in)famous... Piers was sacked. I wonder what will happen to Paolo? Probably nothing.

By earful (Feb 26, 2013)

isn't this kind of thing getting to be the norm? if i recall correctly, there was a brouha awhile back over a nature photography photo that turned out to have been staged. maybe it just shows you can have talent - surely the reputations of these photographers were not based on one photograph - without integrity. nothing new there.

By donjose (Feb 26, 2013)

Idiot. The rifle is not even a sniper rifle. It is a shotgun. Snipers don't use shotguns. The photographer doesn't even know what he is talking about. I don't believe his story about research never meant to be made public. He tried to fake a scene and got caught.

By Tee1up (Feb 26, 2013)

I was looking at the weapon and the belt on his shoulder and thinking the same thing...snipers using a shotgun?

Glen Barrington
By Glen Barrington (Feb 26, 2013)

Well, that's for up close sniping activity. . .

1 upvote
By jedinstvo (Feb 26, 2013)

The guy wasn't a sniper...the caption was wrong. He was a military photographer.

1 upvote
By RFC1925 (Feb 26, 2013)

It was supposed to be a photo of a FORMER US Marine corp sniper obviously not on a combat mission but protecting his house/neighborhood. Sniper rifle would've been pretty unusual choice of weapon for that and for me would've made the photo appear even more staged than it was.

1 upvote
By CameraLabTester (Feb 26, 2013)

The Moon is made of cheese.

Thousand upon thousands of photographs prove it.

Now, whether or not it is actually edam, swiss, fetta, parmessan, or gluey American variety remains to be a big debate...


Dan Desjardins
By Dan Desjardins (Feb 26, 2013)

The image isn't really any good. There's nothing technically intriguing nor compositionally compelling - so the only value would be the circumstances of it - which turn out to be fake.
I think this is a matter of people being embarrassed and trying to defend themselves.
Critical acclaim? Seriously - this is a pedestrian effort at best.

Clyde Thomas
By Clyde Thomas (Feb 26, 2013)

"a genuine misunderstanding and inadvertent posting of research information that was never meant to be made public"

OK so then it's not journalism.

By mandophoto (Feb 26, 2013)

In addition to documenting, Paolo Pellegrin editorialized. He inserted his personal feelings regarding guns and violence but passed it, or tried to, as journalism.

By Midnighter (Feb 25, 2013)

If a photo is presented 'as is' people are free to make up their own minds. If I have a photo of myself with a gorgeous woman viewers can guess if its my wife, girlfriend or relative, that's up to them.. They can bring their own opinions to the viewing of the photo. However if I say its my wife and its really a hooker, its a sham.

To answer the question you have to ask, is it an award winning photo because of content only or because of stated context? In this case context WAS responsible for it being chosen I believe. Therefore people need to either just look at a photo free of any context OR the context needs to be stated correctly.

Thats why I hate even giving titles to photographs.

By KevinSB (Feb 25, 2013)

that won an award ? I don't like or want to bash other peoples vision or photos.. But come on if this win's I think we can say photojournalism is in trouble.. Did they submit this ot a blind judging crew ?

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By Tarpon6 (Feb 25, 2013)

Dude didn't even hold his camera level.

Total comments: 151