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Books Russell Smith: When does photojournalism cross the line into fiction?

Embarrassment has beset the World Press Photo Awards – prestigious prizes that are given out by a foundation based in the Netherlands that recognizes excellence in photojournalism and documentary photography. There are 22 categories given out annually. One of them, awarded a couple of weeks ago, was just revoked, the photographer disqualified like an athlete after a bad blood test. The week of debate that led up to the disqualification was a fantastic primer, though, on the chewy issues that inform contemporary discussions of what exactly truth in representation is.

The "photo of the year" for 2014 was a low-lit image of two anguished gay men in St. Petersburg, Russia. The choice was widely praised for being innovative – for being an intimate relationship portrait rather than an action war shot. But that's not the photo that caused the kerfuffle:

The accusations of trickery first started flying against the winner of "Stories – Contemporary Issues," a category for photo essays.

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The winner in this category was, up until Wednesday evening, Giovanni Troilo, an Italian whose series, The Dark Heart of Europe, focuses on Charleroi, a troubled postindustrial city in Belgium. His set of 10 atmospheric photos show private moments in the darkest corners of the town: a policeman looking ashen before facing rampaging football hooligans; a man holding a gun in the woods; a fetishistic sexual practice in a scary basement; a couple having sex in a car; a nude dinner party that was apparently a bohemian artist's tableau vivant. The end result is an unsubtle condemnation of this place, a depiction of a house of horrors. It conflates poverty with sexual deviance in a way that bothers me. The mayor of Charleroi was rather upset, too.

All the photos look like art photos rather than news photos. And this is the issue: Troilo was right away accused of staging them in one small way or another.

The attention initially focused on the shot of the couple in the car. Troilo quickly admitted the guy in the car was his cousin, and the cousin not only agreed to pose for the shot, but also held a flashlight to illuminate the inside of the car. Critics said that such posing is not true photojournalism, which does not allow the photographer to attempt to affect the drama being observed. Indeed, apparently 20 per cent of this year's entrants to the competition were disqualified for "manipulation" of some sort. Why wasn't this one?

Troilo argued that the couple are merely doing what they normally do, so they were not actors. The World Press Photo organization stood by their winner, and repeated their criterion for the category: "The contest requires photojournalists do not stage pictures to show something that would otherwise have not taken place." Since the parking-lot sex was going to happen anyway, it was not faked. The flashlight question was not addressed.

Nobody questioned the power of Troilo's photos, just the category they were entered in. One vocal blogger, a former World Press Photo jury chair, insisted that they be considered photo illustration rather than photojournalism. Certainly they look, to me, like an art project, an argument rather than a documentation. But doesn't all photojournalism, especially that addressing social issues, make an argument?

This question of category dogs us in parallel conversations in the literary world: Is a memoir one's own "personal truth" or is it reporting?

What's the difference? If we call something "creative non-fiction" do we mean it is creatively embellished? The creative non-fiction genre certainly encourages writers to put a personal spin on objective facts; does this mean that the facts are no longer objective?

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Writers are more flexible on these issues than photographers are.

They seem to be less willing to posit an objective reality in the first place. Most literary intellectuals these days seem quite happy to be witnessing a collapsing of the fiction/non-fiction silos. Journalists still feel old-fashioned about these distinctions.

In photography, the collapsing is more clearly problematic. We may know intellectually that all photos are representations, carefully framed and chosen, and that all photographers are by necessity actors in the drama they are witnessing, so a photograph can never be exactly real. But we also do rely on photographs to be more objective than human memory.

Many conventional press photographers were angry about the award.

Their rules are simple, they said, and this was cheating. I spoke to Louie Palu, a former Globe and Mail photographer who has won awards for his international reporting, including from the war in Afghanistan. He wrote to me, "I think people have an expectation of transparency when working under the banner of journalism … Setting up a scene as [Troilo] is accused of crosses a line."

Then I spoke to Canadian photojournalist Donald Weber, one of the judges for the World Press Photo Awards. He was a jury member at both stages of the process that selected Troilo as the winner of his category. Weber took a more philosophically complex view (or a sophistic one, depending on your stance). He described, in e-mails, how he shot the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev and saw the whole thing, with its costumes and its audience, as theatre on a vast stage. "The whole goddamn thing is staged, Gaza was staged, large news events by their very nature are theatrical … As a photographer, you have to spend time with a subject to gain trust, you have to earn their comfort and their freedom to allow you into their lives … so, there's a ballet, a dance, a theatrical element to our relationship … Is this not staged? … The only photographer that is offering a pure image is that of a Reaper drone in Pakistan, flying 20,000 feet above, undetectable … That's total neutrality. Is that what we want?" Weber points out that the "photo of the year" winner, shot in a private St. Petersburg apartment with the consent and collaboration of its two subjects, could easily have attracted the ire of what he calls the "fundamentalists."

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These interesting conversations were rendered irrelevant on March 4.

A whistle-blower told the World Press Photo office that there were far more serious issues with Troilo's series. Some of the photos, the source claimed, were not even taken in Charleroi, but were reconstructed in Brussels, 50 kilometres away. The artist's nude dinner-party shot was one of them. The administrators confronted Troilo, who copped to the lie. The organization revoked his prize.

Instantly the philosophical discussions were much less complex. We had passed now from subtle interpretation of reality to simple fraud. I have a feeling that the experienced, old-school press photographers had a sense that something was not right, a kind of smell, just from looking at those photos. They could just tell. That doesn't eliminate the pressing issues that the whole intriguing episode brought to the surface. And those photos – they are still really cool.

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