Full disclosure, I am close friends with Shane Keller, the man pictured above. We served in the same Combat Camera unit in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008 and deployed to Iraq together.
I normally don’t write posts like this (this is actually the first time) but this situation is very close to me. I was out of town for the entire weekend without computer access so I was unable to write anything down until now. Even with no computer access I was keeping constant tabs on the situation via my iPhone and iPad, and I spoke with Mr. Keller multiple times. Many points and issues have arisen in the discussions that have taken place among the comment sections of various articles on the situation as well as on different Facebook groups. Almost everything about this controversy has been brought up, but there has been one thing that hasn’t and it is my main issue with the whole thing.
Is purposely omitting facts considered lying?
From the beginning of my photography career and education I have always been taught that captions are extremely important to prevent an image from being taken out of context and used incorrectly. This is where the “who, what, where, when, and why” comes into play and why it is so important. The importance was jammed in everywhere from the military photography school at DINFOS to the photojournalism program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Every shooting internship I had demanded accurate captions with each of my images or else they would have been spiked. Captions go hand-in-hand with our images as Photojournalists and a caption can either make a mundane image dramatic and a dramatic image mundane. It is important to remember this as Photojournalists because the main tenet of our job and industry is to tell the truth above all else. If you start to weigh dramatics more than truth in what you do, then you are no longer being what a Photojournalist should be.
Now let’s look at the Image of Shane that Paolo Pellegrin entered into World Press Photo and Picture of the Year International.
When I first came across that image in the photo story, I didn’t recognize Shane. Part of that was because I haven’t seen him face to face in a couple of years, but also because I never expected him to show up in a photo essay on this topic. I first thought the subject was either an undercover cop, a thug, a drug dealer, or a vigilante, all logical interpretations when viewing the image. If you want clarification on how the subject is involved in the story then you go to the caption, but the provided caption offers next to nothing when it comes to context so the viewers are left to their own interpretations.
This is where my issue comes up. Mr. Pellegrin had every chance to get the correct caption information and even admits that at one point he had it, but then forgot. He knew Shane was not a cop or a drug dealer or a criminal yet offers no clarification for the viewer. In his reply to the original allegations he said he believed that because Shane kept guns to protect his house and home from criminals, he was involved in the greater picture. That assumption about Shane is partially true and including that information in the caption information would have clarified things a good bit but that’s the problem. He was intentionally vague and omitted information about Shane because the information would have arguably made the image less dramatic.
Now, I want to bring another image into question that wasn’t included in the story submitted to the competitions but is a part of the greater body of work shot for the “Crescent” story. It is available for purchase by clients on the MAGNUM website.
Take a moment and really look at that picture. The caption is exactly as it is presented with the photo on the website. Form your own interpretation before reading on.
The man pictured is Brett Carlsen, the RIT student who was assisting Mr. Pellegrin on the story and the person who put Mr. Pellegrin in touch with Shane. The way this image came about was mentioned by Mr. Keller in the original BagNews story about the issue at hand. Not only does the caption misspell Brett’s name but it identifies the gun as his when it is actually Mr. Keller’s pistol and Mr. Pellegrin had asked Mr. Carlsen to pose for the photo.
Does this change your interpretation of the image? Does it significantly change it?
This is undeniably a portrait. That much is clear but what is unclear in its presentation is what it’s a portrait of. Is it a portrait of a gang member and his gun? That’s what I first thought. Once you know more information about the photo you know it’s not, but the only information you are presented with leads you to believe it is something that it is not. Obviously the image is much less dramatic once all the facts are presented.
This photo is being presented in almost a malicious way for a few reasons. For one, it presents Mr. Carlsen as a gang member. It also presents him as an illegal gun owner because it is not his gun. If somehow he came under investigation for a crime where ownership of a gun was important and this image surfaced, then his innocence would be questioned because it is being presented in a journalistic setting with a journalistic intent and truth is the main staple of journalism, both written and photographic. Now in a court of law it would be found to be false and a lie; but if a court of law would come to that conclusion, shouldn’t we, the journalism community and industry, do so first?
There are no laws that govern how the news and journalism operates. The only reason the public trusts journalists to tell the truth is because we hold ourselves to exacting standards of truth. The moment we start to no longer hold ourselves to our own high standards the public has no reason to believe the stories we report. They will begin to question even the most important issues because they have no idea if they are being shown the truth or propaganda.
The question I want you to ask yourself during and after this situation is this:
Is purposefully omitting information in order to guide the viewer into coming to a more dramatic conclusion the same as lying?
I welcome comments and discussions bellow.
In the past day some developments have come about from this whole controversy. World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International have both responded to the situation and have decided to let the awards stand for Mr. Pellegrin
In contrast, Magnum has removed both images from their website and they are no longer for sale as part of “The Crescent” project.
Even though the contests have failed to defend the ethics of the whole situation, maybe Magnum will be more vigilant in the future.