Hoax Upsets Match

Probably most  will have read about the “student hoax” that won Paris Match’s annual contest for student photojournalism, a set of black and white images on how students at the French university of Strasbourg were making ends meet – if you’ve not seen the pictures, they are on the Paris Match site.

Students are shown searching through boxes left on the street after markets for food, staying in overcrowded rooms where they take turns to sleep on the floor, having to work as prostitutes, working long hours at low paid jobs, having to travel long distances from cheap lodgings…

At the prize ceremony, the two winners, Guillaume Chauvin and Rémi Hubert, from the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts, read out a statement that the pictures were faked, made as an artistic gesture to point out the voyeurism and gullibility of the press. The Independent quotes them telling Le Monde, “We pushed the clichés to the limit. We thought the whole thing was so hackneyed that it could never win … We wanted to call into question the inner-workings of the attitude of the kind of media which portrays human distress with complacency and voyeurism.”

They were given the 5,000 Euros at the award ceremony, but the cheque was later stopped, although they claim not to have broken any of the competition rules in their work.  The rules will presumably be rewritten for next year!

Although the pictures are described as “entirely faked” this is arguable. Obviously they were pictures taken with the cooperation of the people involved, but the techniques and the level of direction are perhaps little different from those in many more legitimate photojournalistic projects.

Photographic history is of course full of such things – for example in the work of one of our greatest photographers, Bill Brandt, where so many of his deservedly well-known scenes of London in the thirties were acted to his direction by family, friends and servants.

It’s really the stories that were faked for the Match entry, or at least partly faked. Student poverty is a real issue, but the particular students shown were presumably not feeling its pinch in the way the captions to the images describe. The young lady in miniskirt and boots viewed from behind on a hotel or hostel corridor may well not be “Emma, 23 ans, Master de Philosphie” and may never have said “Pour pouvoir étudier le jour, je me sers de mon cul la nuit… ” But such things are happening and it is a picture that could well have appeared in the press entirely legitimately with the small text “posed by model” hidden at one corner.

I suppose the main thing I think about this work is that it represents a waste of time and effort. There is a problem of student poverty, and students such as Chauvin and Hubert have a privileged position to see it and document it in a truthful and serious work of reportage. To tell it without the clichés, without being hackneyed, though I’m not sure voyeurism is ever absent from photography.

Had they chosen to do so, their work would probably not have won the Paris Match prize, probably not even have been of interest to the magazines or to newspapers. The real problem lies in a culture that depends on prizes and values the voyeurism about distress these students were questioning.

You can see also see some of the other work entered for the competition on the Paris Match site, where the work by Chauvin and Hubert is not identified as the winning entry.  You can also watch a video of last year’s award ceremony, but not this!

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