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The Aftermath Project is a highly respected non-profit organization ‘committed to telling the other half of the story of conflict — the story of what it takes for individuals to learn to live again, to rebuild destroyed lives and homes, to restore civil societies, to address the lingering wounds of war while struggling to create new avenues for peace‘.

Every year it hands out large grants to photographers based on a rigorous and time-consuming submission process.

This year the $20000 grant went to Stanley Greene of Noor Images. The press release had this to say about the judging process:

For the first time, the judging panel was comprised solely of photographers – Nina Berman, Eros Hoagland (winner of The Aftermath Project’s special 2012 grant for conflict photographers) and Sara Terry.

When I read this I took a double-take. I was under the impression that Nina Berman, alongside Stanley Greene, was a founder and owner of the business Noor IMAGES B.V. There was no mention of this in the press release, so I checked the Noor website and yes Greene and Berman are business partners (Noor Images is a limited company registered in Amsterdam owned and managed by the photographers).

I tweeted Berman:

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It was clear from this exchange that the rules of the judging process did not prevent Berman from voting for  Greene.  If the fact that they are business partners is not a conflict of interest, it’s hard to imagine what is?

I’m trying to imagine a circumstance in which a member of duckrabbit would vote in an awards process in favor of another member of duckrabbit and this be acceptable. And whether there’s $20000 to be gained or not, who would want to win an award in this manner?

I’m not suggesting that Berman voted for Greene for any other reason than she thought his submission merited the $20000 grant, but I am genuinely perplexed how anyone could think that it is acceptable for a judge not to step aside in this kind of situation?

This seems out of step with the financial sponsor OSI who exist, in part, to promote good governance. Their own staff policy requires that they commit to the highest levels of integrity… avoiding actual, potential or apparent conflicts of interest’.

And this is the Pulitzer Award’s take on conflicts of interest:

We operate under strict conflict-of-interest rules: If a board member works for the same newspaper chain, or serves on the same departmental faculty, or even is a close friend of a finalist, he or she leaves the room. Afterward, that person learns of the decision – and nothing more.’

So why should the photography industry be exempt from those very reasonable standards of behaviour?

I sent Sara Terry, the founder of the Aftermath Project, the following questions:

  1. If Berman was allowed to vote for a member of her own agency do you see this as a conflict of interest?
  2. If so are you concerned about the message this might send out to other photographers who have spent a lot of time preparing their applications?
  3. Finally, if photogs are allowed to vote in this way for member of their own agencies isn’t it in contradiction of the sponsors, OSI’s values? (None of this is to suggest Berman, who I massively respect, voted out of self-interest)

Terry had this to say (edited response)

In my research on conflict of interest over the years, the general sense I’ve gained is that having a relationship with someone doesn’t constitute the conflict — it’s whether that relationship precludes the individual from making a fair assessment, or whether the individual stands to gain financially from the decision they are making. So to answer your question about Nina, yes, she has a relationship with Stanley as colleagues at Noor, and no, there was no conflict of interest in the judging.

I’m comfortable with the approach we’ve taken with the Aftermath Project judging and the way I’ve communicated with photographers. Each year, the photographers receive a personal email from me — before the press release goes out — telling them who the grant winner and finalists are, and telling them a bit about the reasoning that went in to that year’s judging.’

I’m left wondering of the only circumstance that would constitute a conflict of interest is if a judge was in the position where they could vote for themselves!

Berman herself considered the issue when judging the award but also decided that her relationship with Greene didn’t constitute a conflict of interest:

‘Duckrabbit reached out to me and wanted to know if I recused myself from the final decision because I am a member of NOOR, of which Stanley is also a member.  Sara and I discussed whether I should recuse myself, but we decided it wasn’t necessary. We had all disclosed what our relationships were to various applicants throughout the judging (friends, colleagues, former students, etc). Stanley would have won the grant regardless of how I voted; the other judges, in fact, were the first to identify and push for him as the winner … The truth is I knew dozens of the people who applied to the Aftermath grant, some close colleagues, some former students, and some related to NOOR.   None of that matters.  If anything, in my experience on juries, World Press, POY, it tends to swing the other way.   Jurors get super excited to  see and award unknown work which was the case with the Aftermath finalists.   They were all new names to me and like the winner,  the decision to name them was unanimous.

Both Terry and Berman make the point that they know many of the individuals who apply for grants – close colleagues, former students. In a tight industry like photography it would be very difficult to find someone who had no contact at all with any applicants. In those circumstances judges don’t need to withdraw (unless they have been personally involved in a project) but should obviously commit to restraining personal feelings, declaring those links, and maintaining the neutrality of the process.

But if there is a financial or business connection between a judge and an applicant, as there clearly is if you’re both owners of a business that will benefit from the grant, then that constitutes an unambiguous conflict of interest. In this case all modern standards of business ethics would require the judge to withdraw.

Nina Berman shouldn’t have had to confront this potential and apparent conflict on the judging panel for The Aftermath Project grant. The rules should have mandated her withdrawal. Greene, by Berman’s and Terry’s account, would still have secured the grant and Noor and the Aftermath Project would have avoided any suggestion of corrupt practice.

What a mess.

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

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  • http://cargocollective.com/henryiddon/ Henry Iddon

    Very poor.

    If he was likely to win anyway then stepping aside wouldn’t have effected the outcome and things would have appeared above board. Maybe some people feel above sanction.

  • http://www.john.macpherson.btinternet.co.uk/about.html John Macpherson

    Whatever transpired behind closed doors, whether fair and equable or not, the bit that sticks in my craw is the message this gives to aspiring young (and maybe not so young) photographers.

    The path into professional photojournalism is sufficiently tortuous as it is for young people, without adding the perception that nepotism stalks your progress too. If for no other reason than that, this whole affair should have been handled more thoughtfully.

    We should be setting a better example for the next generation than this surely?

  • http://www.JohnEdwinMason.com John

    You’re quite right, Ducks, that this is a matter of principles, not personalities.

    We all know that Stanley Greene is a fine photographer. We know that Nina Berman is an honest person.

    But, as the Aftermath Project’s own financial sponsor says, it’s just as important to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest as it is the reality of one. Anything else calls the integrity of the grant into question.

    Just as we all know that Greene can shoot and that Berman is incorruptible, we know that few relationships — no relationships — are closer, more intense, and more dangerous than those involving love or money. Relationships that Berman mentions, such as teaching, mentoring, and even friendship, are in a very different category.

    The simple fact that Greene and Berman are business partners should have been enough to prompt her to recuse herself. As things stand, nobody involved comes out of this looking good.

    Pulitzer understands the principle, as you showed. Why doesn’t Aftermath?

    • http://www.duckrabbit.info/members/duckrabbit/ duckrabbit

      Hi John,

      totally agree.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com Stan B.

    … OR THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY.

    “None of that matters.”

    “I’m comfortable with the approach…”

    The great circle jerk of life- how business gets done.

  • http://www.edwardthompson.co.uk Ed

    In defence it is a ridiculously small industry, and at that level everyone knows everyone. As a professional photographer I have entered 1000s of awards, bursaries and grants over the years and not won any of them. You can still become a professional photographer even if you are a professional loser. Plus I’ve been told that losing builds character ;)

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com Stan B.

    BTW- In light of who won this award- shouldn’t you be getting a bunch of apologies from all those who called you some kind of “racist” for challenging the all white PDN jury some years back?

  • http://donnaferrato.com donna ferrato

    This kind of favoritism happens far too often. When the judging process appears corrupted by the judges choosing their friends or people they’ve worked with, the whole point of the competition is lost. And if you want to be judge, you damn well better be able to think, see, respond and be moved by someone you don’t know like the back of your hand. Magnum and the Alexia Fund also show signs of nepotism and other such questionable decisions. Photographers want to know that when they work hard and apply for financial support the process is being followed through according to the rules. With the WES grant there has never been any hint of impropriety because the judges are always chosen with great care, from all parts of the world wide which is expensive to do but its the only way to keep things honest. The organization giving out grants has to pay for airfares and accomodations. Always two editors (who aren’t necessarily friends) and one photographer. This is the only way to avoid corruption and bad feelings. People gossip but with enough clarity and follow thru. That’s what is missing in the photography world. We need an equivalent to the British Private Eye. An online magazine to keep us honest. Photographers should not be deceived into thinking that the judging process is fair and impartial. The Aftermath Project shows symptoms of impropriety. Let’s face it. Its not fair to the photographer who receives the grant if there is even a hint of favoritism. I, for one, would be uncomfortable in such a sticky situation.

  • http://www.tonyhayesimages.com tonemeister

    To be honest Duck, looking at many winning photographs of various photography awards, in this country and elsewhere, I’ve often thought that the winner knows somebody. Situations like the one outlined here do nothing to lessen that suspicion.

  • http://ZUMA24.com Scott Mc Kiernan

    Donna, great points.
    When I was judging both POYi and BOP like Pulitzer, they stressed conflict concerns. I remember one judge stepping out of the room a few times and I personally did not vote on anything i shoot or edited for ZUMA. Friends is not the issue and this is not about the individuals involved it is about the process.
    Her other point of no critical publication on Photography, much less photojournalism is so TRUE!
    PDN when it started was about that. but been over a decade since that was true. To there defense it is not their role, these days.
    I agree, and Wish we had something like Private Eye on Photography, which if done right be very interesting. It is sourly needed!
    DuckRabbit thank you for bringing this up!