This year in the World Press Photo Awards an honorable mention was awarded to Michael Wolf, a prior World Press award-winner from Germany. Wolf’s entry this year was for a series of photographs made of the screen of his computer as he explored Google’s Street View, a service in which automated cameras mounted on vehicles trawl the world to present the street in virtual space.
The debate over the award (as is often the case with World Press Photo) is interesting to read.
The criticisms ring with complaints that they are not his pictures, that it wasn’t him standing there slicing those moments from time, that he’s not out in the world struggling with the rest of us.
These criticisms are a bit navel-gazing in that they are mostly about how we define ourselves as photojournalists, not in how we define what photojournalism does. The boys at dvafoto have an excellent post on these points. You can see Wolf’s comments and thinking in an interview in the British Journal of Photography.
Photojournalism (and photography in general) has a long history of overvaluing process when the only thing that matters is the result. What really matters to the reader? The process or the picture? The complaints smell a bit of “you took the easy way out.” That’s not a legitimate argument.
I don’t specifically care that Wolf chose to use the automated, surveillant and serendipitous cameras of Google. I also would not care had he used screen grab software rather than a camera to make the pictures. Using the camera here just smells of a strange justification and trying to find a way to make himself the photographer. The result is the same as a cropped screen grab but with lower quality. And as others have pointed out, screen grabs from surveillance cameras or TV have been published alongside what we consider “real photojournalism” for a very long time. (A notable difference is that these sorts of images have not won photojournalism awards in the past that I know of. Correct me in comments if I’m wrong.)
Wolf’s collection of images is fascinating, powerful, opinionated, curious and somewhat addictive. I like them very much. They are art as Girl Talk’s remixes or John Cage’s Chance Music are art. But they are not photojournalism. By presenting this work with a venerable photojournalism award, the World Press Photo jurors have declared them photojournalism, even when Wolf himself apparently does not.
My argument against these images as photojournalism is over the lack of context. As photojournalists we all know how critical it is not only to understand how an image we make or publish would be read, but also what the circumstances are surrounding those images so we can correctly inform the reader. We’ve all made photos sliced out of air that without context might mean something entirely different than the story we were there to tell. In our outtakes we all have images that might accidentally lie, and as photojournalists we have the responsibility to make sure those don’t see the light of day as journalism.
What is happening in these images? We can assume, but we cannot know. Wolf can assume, but he cannot know. He was not there to see the moment unfold and interpret its meaning. He could not follow up with the subjects to clarify what just happened.
Wolf uses the term “curate” to describe these images, and I think that is closer, but still not correct. He is collecting things out of context and interpreting them from personal experience, but not the background information. A curator has context and background from the maker of the images. Wolf lacks even that. An editor of photojournalism should also gather the background and context from the photographer/witness before publishing. Wolf can’t (realistically) do that either.
Our job is an imperfect one. We inevitably contextualize important events through the filters of our own eyes, our own lives and our own experiences. But we should do the same through the objective circumstances of the scene. It is the valiant effort to understand the scenes we photograph that makes us journalists. It is not the process we use to capture the images.
World Press Photo’s jurors surely knew this would be a controversial award. I find nothing wrong with Wolf’s work other than the label put on it by the jurors of the contest and by Wolf in entering it there. There are many appropriate venues and labels for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” but Press Photo is not one.