Google Streetview of World Press Photo headquarters
Does this look like photojournalism to you? Google Street View of World Press Photo headquarters

Another World Press Photo contest, another World Press Photo controversy. It’s become a tradition for WPP jury decisions to come under attack within minutes of the awards announcement. Past rows have included the veracity of certain images, a perceived bias toward death and destruction, and the question of whether the contest itself retains any relevance in a rapidly changing media landscape.

But this year the jury raised the controversy bar – or lowered it, depending on one’s point of view – with an Honorable Mention in the Contemporary Issues section to Michael Wolf’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The award, for a series of screenshots from Google Street View, is such a shining example of imperial wardrobe malfunction that it’s tempting to simply point and laugh at the naked jurors. “Unf*cking believable”, “are you joking?” and “I’m putting my money on traffic cameras next year” were among the immediate reactions from photographers.

In an interview with Wolf the British Journal of Photography asked: “is Google Street View photojournalism?” The answer is so obvious that the question is barely worth putting: entirely lacking even the basic who, what, where, when or why, the series comprehensively fails every journalistic standard. And despite Wolf’s insistence that the images are not screenshots but real photographs, he is only correct in the most banal and literal sense: to paraphrase Cartier-Bresson, they are simply what comes out of a camera when a camera works.

None of which makes ASOUE worthless. Viewed as art the series may be successful, although arguably they would be more so if Wolf had staged photographs and then passed them off as genuine Google Street View images. It’s notable that Wolf has not regarded himself as a photojournalist for some years now, and supporters of the jury decision tend to take the world of art, rather than journalism, as their reference point in the debate.

So what were the images doing in a photojournalism contest? Wolf describes his decision to enter the set as a provocation; a better interpretation would be that he was having a laugh. To be effective such provocations need a punter mug enough to take the bait, and the WPP jury duly obliged. A cynic might speculate that the jury decision is nothing more than a publicity wheeze to make WPP appear edgy and relevant. A more likely explanation is that faced with ASOUE the jury simply forgot photojournalism’s most basic functions, such as to inform and enlighten; not to mention the fact that photojournalists generally create new images, rather than simply curate – Wolf’s own description – images that already exist.

Wolf has characterised the jury decision as progressive, but he would say that. A more accurate assessment would be “destructive”, since the decision is bound only to undermine WPP’s credibility as a standard-bearer for photojournalism. Whether that matters outside the arcane world of photo contests is open to question, but WPP may want to refer future juries to their mission statement before judging begins. Alternatively they could learn from the admission requirements at Visa Pour L’Image: “We are an international festival of photojournalism focusing on news and current affairs. Please, NO art photography.”

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9 Responses to “An Unfortunate Event At World Press Photo”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julie Edwards, Neil Turner and Trond Sørås, Jeremy Nicholl. Jeremy Nicholl said: An Unfortunate Event At World Press Photo http://bit.ly/dYRfiw #togs #photography #photojournalism #worldpressphoto […]

  2. Clive Bubley Clive Bubley says:

    I trust that Mr Wolf has obtained a licence from Google to reproduce their copyright images…

  3. Paul Treacy Paul Treacy says:

    Whatever about WPP, as street photography I thoroughly enjoyed these images. I quite surprised myself. I’m off for another gander now, in fact.

  4. This is clearly not photojournalism. Not by any definition that I know anyway.

    I think it’s a complete and utter farce that this ‘artist’ has even been noted by a judging panel on what used to be the premier prize for photojournalists. Are the ‘judges’ trying to make themselves a lauging stock? If so they’re doing a pretty good job.

    Photojournalists are people like Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths who take risks to get great photojournalism and to be honest it’s a total insult to them and all the other hard working photographers working in this field that this has even happened.

    Wolf writes in the article: “I use a tripod and mount the camera, photographing a virtual reality that I see on the screen. It’s a real file that I have, I’m not taking a screenshot. I move the camera forward and backward in order to make an exact crop, and that’s what makes it my picture. It doesn’t belong to Google, because I’m Google, because I’m interpreting Google; I’m appropriating Google. If you look at the history of art, there’s a long history of appropriation.”

    Two words: artistic b*llocks.

    Photographing a virtual reality that I see on the screen? I think your head is so far up your bottom that I’m surprised that you can actually even use the viewfinder!

    I think you’ll find that the image does belong to Google, (or at least it does in my understanding of copyright). Just because you set up a tripod and photograpp your computer monitor does not make you smart, edgy or clever, just very, very lazy, (and/or possibly agoraphobic).

    Next time go in for the Turner prize which is targeted at artists who have their heads up their bottoms or try leaving the house to actually capture life as it happens and produce stunning photography, which is what this prize should have been given for.

  5. Nigel Amies Nigel Amies says:

    That’s the drift these days – boring, bland, meaningless digital photography mass produced by computer nerds and other tech head types who rarely leave their bedrooms. With street photography under siege due to public and police paranoia and photojournalism lost in the techno and media swamps of HD video, camera phones and the internet as well as the Orwellian, Big Brother surveillance of Google Street it isn’t surprising it’s lost it’s way as well as it’s raison d’etre.

  6. Bogdan Bogdan says:

    Well, mission accomplished at WPP. They generated enough buzz to last them for the year if not more… You can’t buy this kind of exposure really…

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