Je Suis Chaleroi?

A new controversy has emerged from the latest World Press Photo, with exception being taken to the winning entry, The Dark Heart of Europe, by Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo in Contemporary Issues Stories. There are 10 images from the story at the WPP and a dozen on the photographer’s own web site, under the title Charleroi, La Ville Noire – The Dark Heart of Europe, which omits several in the WPP selection.

In this case the complaint is not about the processing of the images, though some might feel this is at least a touch over-dramatised, but about staging and the false image they give of the city, whose mayor Paul Magnette, while professing not to be and expert in photography complains that the story is anything but photojournalism, hiding aspects and distorting reality through staged images.

In his letter the mayor goes on to repeat some of the criticisms of the work raised immediately after the award by Belgian photographer Thomas Vanden Driessche who is quoted on the web site OAI13 (Our Age is 13):

L’utilisation de la mise en scène, l’éclairage artificiel mais surtout le caractère falsifié et mensonger des légendes participe à la construction de cette fiction prenant les apparences d’un reportage. Cela ne me causerait aucun souci si cet ensemble était le résultat d’une œuvre artistique très personnelle. Mais le photographe ne présente pas son travail comme tel. Au contraire, il donne manifestement une réelle dimension journalistique/documentaire à son approche. Le simple fait que cette série a été soumise au World Press Photo et surtout le fait qu’elle ait été primée lui confère une crédibilité journalistique.

Driessche is saying that staging, the artificial lighting and above all the false and lying captions result in the making of a fictional story in what appears to be reportage. This would not worry him in a personal artistic work, but this is not how the photographer has presented it. On the contrary he clearly presents it as a journalistic/documentary story and submitted it as such to World Press Photo who have given it credibility as journalism by giving it the prize.

The mayor’s letter, reproduced in part on the same site gives some details about who and what appear in some of the images, arguing that the reality they show is very different to the story implied by the photographer through the highly stylised images and deceptive captioning, ending his letter by stating that the photographer has deformed reality for the sake of a story which discriminates against the city of Charleroi, its people and the profession of photojournalism. He says that you will not find a single person living in the city who would recognise it from the story, and that is seems to be more a settling of grudges than investigative reporting.

Time Lightbox’s report of the story includes some translations of the comments in the mayor’s letter and includes a statement from WPP:

“We are currently verifying the facts behind the photo story, as we do with all the prizewinning pictures, and we are in touch with the photographer Giovanni Troilo.”

Of course, if photographers and journalists are doing their job properly they will often offend some people. Few organisations welcome any critical investigation, as many people, particularly whistleblowers, have found to their cost. For those of us who have no knowledge of Charleroi (and I imagine few of us have heard of it before this, let alone been there) we have only the opposing views and the nature of the photographs to inform us.

Photography cannot exist without a point of view, though in much we see that may well be a rather confused one. The strength of Troilo’s work which led to its success is in the clarity of his view and the dramatic way he has presented it. We all have to dramatise the situations we photograph, to give them some form in order to communicate with an audience.

For many photographers, the guiding principle was stated clearly by one of the legends, W Eugene Smith in his credo “Let truth be the prejudice”. Perhaps in this case truth may have given way to prejudice. It will be interesting to see what WPP responds.

3 Responses to “Je Suis Chaleroi?”

  1. WPP have decided to stand by their award and issued a statement that has outraged many leading photographers around the world. You can read a fairly detailed account about their statement at the NPPA:

    Photographers views are generally rather more pithy with responses talking about the WPP “flushing its ethical standards down the toilet” and similar, and talk by leading photojournalists of setting up a petition calling on the WPP to uphold its own ethical standards, clearly stated in their recent research report:
    – “Photos cannot be staged, posed or re-enacted.”
    which I wrote about recently:

  2. Finally, new evidence from Bruno Stevens that one of Giovanni Troilo’s images was not even taken (as he had asserted) in Charleroi but in Brussels has led WPP to disqualify the work.

    It’s the right decision, and in this case they really had no choice but to disqualify the work. But it is still very much to their shame that they failed to do so because of the staging of some of the images.

    Earlier, Visa Pour l’Image director general Jean-Francois Leroy hand announced that they would not be mounting the usual WPP show later this year in Perpignan, writing “The photojournalists we want to represent do not call upon their cousins to fornicate in a car” and that “the values we stand for are non-negotiable”. It was a decision that many photographers will have applauded, and I hope that they will stick to despite the eventual disqualification on other grounds.

  3. […] there is unlikely to be the kind of controversy that the WPP has recently attracted. The staging in Je Suis Chaleroi? would certainly never have been thought acceptable […]

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