Ethics Quiz: The Controversial Photo



Sometimes cheating isn’t cheating at all, but a just a different interpretation of the rules. And sometimes, it’s just cheating.

The World Press Photo contest just stripped “The Dark Heart of Europe,” a 10-photo series by Giovanni Troilo about life in Charleroi, Belgium, of a first prize after the judges decided that he had misrepresented the location of one of the  images. But before proof of the mislabeling of one of the photos settled the matter—Troilo had taken one of the images in the artist’s studio outside Brussels and not in Charleroi as the series titles had represented—another of the images in his entry had caused a rules dispute.

 Troilo had photographed his cousin having sex with a woman in the back of a car, using a remote-control flash to illuminate the steamy back seat. By putting a flash in the car, the stickers said, Troilo had effectively staged the photo, violating the ethics of  photojournalism and the rules of the contest.

The original caption on the photo posted on the World Press Photo website was, “locals know of parking lots popular for sexual liaisons.” The photographer said he had made it clear to World Press Photo that he had followed his cousin on a night when his cousin had planned to have sex, and had his cousin’s consent to place the flash device in the car. World Press Photo rules state that “staging is defined as something that would not have happened without the photographer’s involvement.”

Troilo argues that his photo of the sexual liaison qualified under this definition. He didn’t tell his cousin to have sex in the car, and it would have happened whether he photographed it or not. “This is not a stolen photo of a couple caught unawares,” the photographer said, explaining that his goal was “to show voyeurism through voyeurism. The camera becomes active; it becomes the sense of shame.”

Other photojournalists argue that by conspiring with one of his subjects to illuminate the event, Troilo left the realm of photojournalism and entered that of .  portraiture. One of the harsher critics wrote on Facebook, “The photojournalists we want to represent do not call upon their cousins to fornicate in a car.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is:

Did Troilo cheat under the photojournalism rules by planting a flash in the car where his cousin was planning to have sex?

My view: Sure he did.

His argument is worthy of Bill Clinton: “But I didn’t cause something to happen that would not have happened without my  involvement!” is basically “It depends what the meaning of ‘something’ is.” Something isn’t “Toilo’s cousin having sex in a car.” Something is “Toilo’s cousin having sex in a car that has a remote controlled flash in it.”

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or the Observer Effect, dictates the ethics verdict. By making the sex visible to the photographer, the event itself was altered, and in a predictable way. Troilo may not have told his cousin what to do or how to do it, but he made sure he did it in a very special environment: a car with a flash in it.

That’s staged.

(What I want to know now is whether the girl in the car knew about the photographer and the flash before the photo was taken.)


 Facts: New York Times

8 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Controversial Photo

  1. I think the key is this line:

    >>”The photographer said he had made it clear to World Press Photo that he had followed his cousin on a night when his cousin had planned to have sex, and had his cousin’s consent to place the flash device in the car.”

    If this line were true, that he fully disclosed the circumstances of the photo at the time of submission, then it was the judge’s responsibility to disqualify the photo before the prize was submitted.

    This view, however, would hinge on a good faith belief that the photo met the criteria of the contest. The guidelines for photojournalism seem pretty well established, so this would be a tough argument to make.

    However, the jury notes the criteria for the specific category the photo was awarded for was ambiguous:

    >>”The World Press Photo jury at the time said his work — which won in the Contemporary Issues category — could be seen as documentary photography or *portraiture*, where such use of a flash is considered acceptable.”

    The damning element is the misrepresentation of the photo’s location:

    >>”World Press Photo had reopened the investigation after receiving word that Mr. Troilo had taken one of the images in the studio of the artist Vadim Vosters outside Brussels and not in Charleroi.”

    The photographer claims he made a “mistake”, but even accidental misrepresentation would be unacceptable in journalism and enough to disqualify him from the contest. Now, true mistakes are inevitable in a field as huge as photojournalism. However, this was a contest meant to highlight the best in the industry, not the middle of critical breaking news that the public needs information as soon as possible. One is expected to take care that one’s best works is presented .

    To be so sloppy as to mislabel one’s best work submitted for critique, and to not immediately notice the judges of the mistake (even at the risk of disqualification) just as unethical as deliberately misleading the origins of the photos from the beginning. When mistakes happen, one needs to own up and admit the mistake, to give those who did not make such a blunder a fair chance at winning. This may mean the loss of a competition, but may stave off the loss of one’s reputation as an honest journalist.

    The contest is meant to award best in the field of journalism; this includes both the product and process.

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