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The World Press photo of the year was announced yesterday.   John Stanmeyer was the winner.  Speaking to the New York Times photographer and jury member David Guttenfelder is reported as having commented ‘that the jury knew that it might be controversial’.

Yes. But not because of the picture. Here’s why:

The chair of this year’s jury is Gary Knight (the furthest person from the camera in the pic above). He is a founder and shareholder of the limited company VII photo. The winner, John Stanmeyer, is also a founder and shareholder of the limited company VII photo. Knight and Stanmeyer are business partners. A clear conflict of interest compounded by the fact that their business stands to profit from the decision of the jury led by Knight.

It’s inevitable that conflicts of interest will take place.  Good governance comes down to how institutions deal with them. On this front World Press continue to undermine their own credibility with some wilfully self destructive governance ( overseen by David Campbell).

This is a good explanation of conflict of interest from Columbia University:

An apparent conflict of interest is one in which a reasonable person would think that the professionals judgement is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest. It is important to note that a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by a personal interest; a conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.  It’s how you deal with them that matters. 

This is how the Pulitzer prize deals with a conflict 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.’

Removing yourself from the decision making process when there is a conflict of interest is called recusing yourself. It’s normally a basic right which protects the integrity of individuals and institutions.  Did Knight recuse himself? According to the New York Times the answer is no.

‘Mr. Knight said that although he had asked to be removed from the final judging because of his friendship and professional relationship with Mr. Stanmeyer, the World Press rules did not allow for it.’

I find this bizarre.

Knight obviously knew it was wrong to keep chairing the process when there was such a clear conflict of interest, or else he wouldn’t have asked to stand down. It’s not a matter of rules then whether he carries on in that position, it’s a matter of maintaining the integrity of the process.  It’s also a matter of respect for Stanmeyer.  Would you want to win an award that has been presided over by your business partner?  I find it inexplicable.

Either World Press, Knight and Campbell live in a bubble where they actually do not have any idea how badly this plays outside of the photography community (and to many within it who are afraid to say something) or they don’t care.  Given it happens so regularly it’s hard to imagine they give a damn.

From a post I wrote about World Press judging last year

When the result of the World Press multimedia contest was announced it was noticeable  that among the winners was work by NPR. The chair of the judges this year was Keith Jenkins, whose job title is ‘Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia, NPR‘.  In the press release there was no mention of whether Jenkins stood down from his role as chair of judges whilst NPR’s work was under discussion …World Press and Jenkins refuse to answer the simple question as to whether Jenkins chaired the judging of his own companies work and then voted for it (so much for transparency).  What they do say is that even if that did take place it’s absolutely not a system open to corruption because the vote is only worth 7%. 

From a post I wrote in 2012

Last year the panel was chaired by Ed Kashi from the photo agency VII (great choice) and another member was Andrew De Vigal, multimedia editor at the New York Times (another great choice). I think there was just six judges.

First prize went to the New York Times. Second prize went to a VII photographer. (both strong work)

You would presume that the laws of the contest would require both Kashi and De Vigal to at the very least abstain from voting or commenting on their own companies work? Anything else would just be two fingers up to any normal definition of fair competition.  So when I put this question to World Press Photo they responded by saying that it would be ‘unfair‘ to stop Andrew De Vigal or Ed Kashi voting for their own companies work.

‘Unfair’?

What does that say about how much  (or little) respect World Press Photo  have for the hundreds of people entering work who I’m sure have a very different understanding of what is ‘fair’ in a competition?

When governments put in place systems like this we call it corruption. That’s the kind of corruption (bad governance) that photojournalism presumably, in part, exists to expose. 

It’s not just the World Press awards that puts itself in this position. In 2012 the Aftermath award was given to Stanley Greene by a three member panel that included business partner Nina Berman. Did she recuse herself?  Nope.  At the time I was left wondering if the only circumstance that would constitute a conflict of interest is if a judge was in the position where they could vote for themselves!

Apart from failing to recuse himself from chairing the jury Knight made some disparaging remarks to BJP about the quality of the photography presented to the jury,

‘in terms of depth and breadth, I noticed that something was missing … many of them hadn’t been well developed, so when you come to judge that story, you are left thinking: ‘It hasn’t been edited very well. There is no narrative … I’m seeing in these awards the real-life consequence of the lack of resources that photographers have to go out into the world and cover stories with any depth at all’.

Maybe Knight is making the mistake of judging the state of photography by the challenges his agency faces but frankly he’s wrong; there is so much interesting, thoughtful photography/storytelling out there at the moment it’s sometimes hard to know where to start.  The New York Times Lens blog for example consistently showcases fabulous work.

Some of the work out there (Mortram, Rafriqui) is as deep as any I’ve seen, yet it passes by World Press (probably because the photographers don’t see the point in entering). Maybe there is a problem with the way the World Press jury are looking, or the staging of the competition (tens of thousands of photos sifted through over a few days)?

Instead of disparaging the work that is out there Knight could be a bit more honest about the limits of the process.

Maybe photo editors, judging panels, agencies were blindly funded over the years by highly profitable news orgs to take themselves down a dark alley in which the rest of the world just simply didn’t want to follow.  The money ran out and they’ve found themselves so detached from an audience that there is not much left to sell but workshops. Outside that bubble I see many visual artists/storytellers/documenters working hard, making a living, looking forward and grasping fresh opportunities to tell stories.

Knight laments that ‘it’s evident that there’s very few [institutions] left that can still afford to provide resources to photographers.’ I’m sure that’s true if the photographers only want to produce self-referential art served up as documentary to catch someone from Magnum’s eye,  but trust me there are plenty of institutions out there with money for great visual storytellers. If there wasn’t we wouldn’t exist.

duckrabbit was built on the still image. I think this year we already have 12 films on the books (about as much as we can manage) and we’ve not had a quiet period for three years but if we become complacent, immune to change or detached from audience,  we’ll die.

Don’t be fooled by Knight. These are exciting times.

As for Stanmeyer’s picture. It’s terrific. I’ll let John Edwin Mason have the final say:

 

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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  • john manfield

    I totally agree with you. Gary Knight is well known for giving awards to VII photographers. In the 2007 World Press Photo when he was jury chair, several VII photographers and VII network ones won a few awards, some of them totally ridiculous like the two of Benjamin Lowy, especially this one: http://www.archive.worldpressphoto.org/search/layout/result/indeling/detailwpp/form/wpp/start/49/q/ishoofdafbeelding/true/trefwoord/year/2007
    I can see VII photographers submitting all their work (even the most mediocre ones) to the World Press Photo when Gary Knight is the jury chair. What a joke!

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

      Hi John,

      thanks for your comment

      ‘Gary Knight is well known for giving awards to VII photographers. ‘

      Well I don’t think he has that much power. The issue here, for me anyway, is not that he fixed the awards (though over the years I have heard stories from people on the judging about awards being stitched up) but that World Press allowed him to continue in the role when a business partner’s work was being discussed.

      As it turns out for Stanmeyer to win Knight would have had to have voted for him. I can’t understand how this is acceptable to so many senior people in the photographic community.

      UPDATE: On Friday World Press wrote to say that the decision had to be reached by unanimous verdict. This would have meant Knight voting for Stanmeyer. They have now amended this to day by ‘majority’ verdict. This means Knight would not have had to vote for Stanmeyer. Its a shame the person responding did not know such a fundamental aspect of the rules. Either way if Knight is not in the room controversy is avoided.

  • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com john macpherson

    Bah. The utterly dispiriting thing about this whole sorry mess is the way it will dismay aspirant young photographers. The message is clearly “if you’re not in the club you can’t win”. This whole process should be transparent and fair, with not a whiff of impropriety. Whether there are actually unfair procedures afoot is irrelevant, it’s the perception that there might be that is damaging. It damages the profession, it damages reputations, but if it further alienates rising talent then it’s really not acceptable.

    Here’s a telling quote from a recently published paper. Awards, Archives, and Affects: Tropes in the World Press Photo Contest 2009 – 2011:

    “In the age of global digital image banks, tropes have become especially expedient semiotic resources; the more multi-purpose and generic they are, the more commercial, and widespread, they become, capturing the contemporary shift of photography from witnessing to becoming a symbolic system, a system actively and intentionally sustained by powerful agents.

    We further demonstrated that photography contests put selected photographs in a specific context for perception and evaluation, foregrounding iconographic conventions rather than journalistic criteria of impact or accuracy. Through our analysis of the images awarded in the WPP, we pointed out how tropes organize Western audiences’ encounter with atrocity, but also how they are grounded within normative associations and cultural prejudices, often connected to gender. This article has not been written in order to condemn recognizable formulas or their presence in photography contests, but rather to signal the pressing need to look past the limitations and distortions of tropes and to serve as an example of a method of research in archives where tropes are dominant.

    The purpose of this study was to provide a preliminary examination of the tropes recurrent among the images awarded prizes in the WPP and to demonstrate how the contest influences and organises understanding of, but it also codifies existing cultural discourses.”

    (Zarzycka & Kleppe (2013) Awards, Archives, and Affects: Tropes in the World Press Photo Contest 2009 – 2011) Link: http://repub.eur.nl/pub/50361/

    In light of this I think it becomes even more important that WPP is seen to operate fairly and openly given the influence it has on the (visual) delivery and interpretation of news and our consequent understanding of global conflicts and disasters.

    Personally, I find it very depressing that WPP seem to see nothing wrong in acting in this way with regard to judging. The whole system needs a complete overhaul and freshen up, with a complete rethink about the judging process. Judging panels need to comprise more ‘ordinary’ people – ie actual consumers of WPP imagery, rather than those select few creators of such imagery. Maybe even get a few of the Grayson Perry’s of the art world involved, and some influential writers to deliberate too – we need different voices that can see past the visual rhetoric and push forwards the whole profession in a direction few of us could have imagined. That might also encourage more diversity of entrants as well.

    When photojournalism is under such stresses – financial, political, technological – the need to keep it fresh, vibrant and relevant has never been more important.

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

      Great comment. As ever. Thanks.

  • http://www.nickturpin.com Nick Turpin

    Excellent post, very enlightening to those of us that don’t follow WPP that closely.

    Thank you

  • Tewfic El-Sawy

    What’s also dispiriting is that the young aspirant photographers and photojournalists have realized that they have to belong to the “club” to get anywhere…and won’t utter a word about this. When the old guard is passed over, and the torch is handed over to a newer generation, they’ll probably act in the same way. Cronyism is not restricted to the photo industry…utterly dispiriting and wrong.

  • http://www.andrewquilty.com Andrew Quilty

    But Duckrabbit, were you aware that Knight indeed did step down once the Stanmeyer image made it into the final round of judging?

    http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/the-worlds-best-unaltered-photos/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    I just can’t help to think that there’s a tinge of sour grapes in your post.

    I’d be the first to admit that NO judging process is infallible but without doubt WPP is one of the most scrupulous and transparent systems there is.

    If not Gary Knight, who else? Choose anyone in the world that is qualified to judge such an award and he or she is going to sit down to work that they have either seen, admired or even commissioned beforehand.

    On top of that, Knight was the chair of a panel. The decision didn’t come down to him alone. In fact, as stated on Lens (above) Knight wasn’t part of the final decision at all.

    I think if you’re going to critique the system, you’ve really got to offer an alternative. Otherwise the bitterness tarnishes the argument.

    Interesting read all the same.

    Cheers,
    Andrew – another WPP loser

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

      Hi Andrew,

      thanks for your comment.

      I think you need to read the post and the one you link to properly. The NYT’s says Knight did not stand down.

      ‘I’d be the first to admit that NO judging process is infallible but without doubt WPP is one of the most scrupulous and transparent systems there is.’

      I beg to differ. Some time ago I was told by a senior and highly respected judge form a different year that an award had been rigged in a discussion outside of the screening room. I have no reason to doubt that person since he was self-implicating.

      As for sour grapes or bitterness, I have never entered the World Press Photo Awards. The winning image is terrific.

      THANKS

  • http://smalltowninertia.co.uk Jim Mortram

    What an interesting, thought provoking post and a real joy to see Asim’s simply stunning work.

  • http://zenteno.photoshelter.com Hernan Zenteno

    If I no remember bad the winning prize image of Anthony Suau photo for the 2008 WPP was published on line by Time when the editor in chief was still Anne Mary Golon that presided the jury this year. So, I think this kind of conflict of interest are usual. Honestly, I believe that would be impossible to have some member of jury each year that don’t know some of the work submitted. But go out of the room when some well known work of friends or previous partnership relation occurred would be the right gesture, at less from my point of view. Would that have prevented that the Stanmeyer photo won? I think no. Is an excellent photo and I am pretty sure the result would be the same. There are more members in the jury. Maybe a simple gesture will avoid stir some noise. For me is more disquieting the information that more of the nine percent of the finalists images of the last Word Press Photo were disqualified because of removing information in post-processing. Hey, we are talking a percentage of a selection of the best photos of journalism. Credibility is our only capital in this kind of work. If we play with it at professional level we are doing a very big mistake.
    http://hernanzenteno.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/nine-percent/

  • http://www.derekhudson.com Derek Hudson

    Hi Duckrabbit,

    I am not sure to whom of you I am addressing this precisely so excuse me calling you Duckrabbit :-)

    Thank you for the excellent article.
    It is high time the WPP pulled themselves together. Year in year out this competition is steeped in controversy which I suppose is somewhat inevitable given the nature of the beast. Nevertheless it is ultimately the responsibility of the organisation to make a concerted effort to appoint a president of the jury who is sufficiently neutral as to not leave margin for doubt or the slightest suspicion of incestuousness.

    I had no idea that the rules do not call for the head honcho to step down from the judging process when confronted with a conflict of interest until I read you. Is it not the requirement of any democratic process to ensure transparency no matter what?

    However, unlike you I have a wee problem with this picture. Yes it is very nicely composed, almost ‘biblical’ in its mood and tenure and thanks to today’s amazing digital ‘night vision’ DSLR’s which made it possible.
    But this doubting Thomas is troubled by what the caption reveals as I thought upon seeing it that these guys were taking a picture of the apparent full moon. But no they are seeking a stronger signal from, we are told, neighbouring Somalia.
    Really? So is it a phenomen in Djibouti City that by holding mobile phones at arms length towards the sky that a stronger signal is obtained?
    I’d like to know the answer to that because if not then what are John Stanmeyer’s protagonists doing in this pose?

    Food for thought? Well I really hope not. Unfortunately there are a good many celebrated photographers who are household names to those of us in the profession and who are suspected, no, let me be frank, guilty of arranging the scenery to suit the story. It’s pretty well known and it’s a dispicable practice but then it’s what you can get away with when no one is watching. Ever wondered how they do it these photographers who just happen across the most perfectly placed dead body that you missed when you passed by there a few hours before? Yes me too.

    Well there’s no way you can ask a raw file if they saw anything untoward before recording the image, or not yet there isn’t !

    Thanks for your excellent blog.

    Good luck.

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

      Hi Derek,

      duckrabbit is good. We speak with one voice on this issue.

      ‘it is ultimately the responsibility of the organisation to make a concerted effort to appoint a president of the jury who is sufficiently neutral as to not leave margin for doubt or the slightest suspicion of incestuousness.’

      This point is so obvious but World Press don’t get it, or don’t care. I can’t understand why they are so happy to self-harm their reputation in this way.

  • M. Munro

    ANDREW QUILTY! , I thought you would have kept your head down on an issue like this. Considering you were the SOLE judge of the Moran Prize in 2009 (an Australian photo competition) where you awarded your long time friend and mentor Dean Sewell $80 000!!!! I repeat $80 000. Not only was Dean awarded but a large majority of the runner-up winners where close friends of yours as well.

    AND on top of that Sewell was awarded another $80 000 from another friend and colleague for the same prize the following year.

    Sour grapes, bitterness? I don’t think you comprehend in the slightest the term – conflict of interest.

    Here is some very valid commentary on the incestuous world of photographic awards and the need for transparency and – http://www.josephfeil.com/snapshots/?p=428

  • Darren Goodsir

    ANDREW QUILTY! , I thought you would have kept your head down on an issue like this. Considering you were the SOLE judge of the Moran Prize in 2009 (an Australian photo competition) where you awarded your long time friend and mentor Dean Sewell $80 000!!!! I repeat $80 000. Not only was Dean awarded but a large majority of the runner-up winners where close friends of yours as well.
    AND on top of that Sewell was awarded another $80 000 from another friend and colleague for the same prize the following year.
    Sour grapes, bitterness? I don’t think you comprehend in the slightest the term – conflict of interest.
    Here is some very valid commentary on the incestuous world of photographic awards and the need for transparency and – http://www.josephfeil.com/snapshots/?p=428

  • [email protected]

    Hey duckrabbit, tell the whole story

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

      Be my guest. I would love to know!

  • Charles

    I entered this years contest. Of course it would right to suggest that photographers who never won an award might be exhibiting sour grapes. The fact of the matter is DuckRabbit is absolutely right. The WPP is a prestigious competition that should be properly managed. Some have said it is infallible to have a fair judging system. I disagree.

    The way to go about it is this. Select a chairman or chairwoman. Then go on the streets and ask a broad variety of members of the public who have no insider knowledge to form a jury. Not the US style where members can be chosen or discarded but the British system where the jury is the jury. Ask these members of the public to pick what they feel are the best pictures.

    That may seem bizarre but who are the end users of images? Considering the whole idea behind WPP is pictures that are ultimately intended to be published than let the people decide.

    Then you will not have to hear the condescending spiel from “Professionals” like Gary Knight that there was a lack of quality images entered. What he actually should of said is “a lack of quality images from VII photo” Quite frankly there are so many better young photographers shooting far better material that do not stand a chance because as Tewfic said the industry is riddled with a Freemasonry level of cronyism.

  • Derek Hudson

    Charles, you might want to cast an eye on WPP’s secretary’s ‘Reflections from the Secretary’s Seat’ here:
    http://www.david-campbell.org/2014/02/17/world-press-photo-2014-contest-reflections-secretarys-seat/

    I think it is the first time we get a real insight into the process.

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

      Thanks for that Derek. Well worth a read.

  • Charles

    Thanks Derek.

    Of course it’s always good to hear that someone independent has said that the judging procedure was fair. Clearly someone associated with the WPP deems it important enough to make a statement which is in effect a PR damage limitation exercise.

    My point is that no photo contest should be judged by other photographers or picture editors who have a some kind of connection with the entered images. There were very worthy winners and some not so worthy winners in my opinion, in particular I thought the winning portraits were a mix of excellent and some not so, but you see I am a photographer so I would say that.

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

      Hi Charles/Derek,

      If you are refering to David Campbell he is not in anyway independent. He is repsonsible for upholding the process and I’m pretty confident he is on the payroll.

      THANKS

      Benjamin

  • http://www.sergevancauwenbergh.com Serge Van Cauwenbergh

    Do you know what I first thought when I found out John Stanmeyer had won, just minutes after the announcement? “Isn’t he a founding member of VII, just like Gary Knight, the chair of this year’s jury?” And you know why these thoughts first came to my mind? Because of blogs like duckrabbit where previous articles somehow made me become more critical and less susceptible regarding such events. I became more cautious and less ecstatic.

    This critical investigation has certainly provoked an interesting but necessary debate regarding conflict of interest during such events, and that’s a good thing.

    Notwithstanding, I truly think it’s an amazing image.

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

      Hi Serge,

      thanks for your comment.

      It’s a fantastic image and the crazy thing is if Knight had actually stepped down we’d only be talking about what a great image won.

      b

  • Pete

    Good read Duckrabbit, many thanks for the insight. If the so called ‘expert’ checked RAW files how many did he/she look at? To enter the competition you enter jpegs. Did the jury call for RAW files for all shortlisted entries? If so the amount of work must have been huge. As for the comment that 8% of the entries had been digitally altered, for me that’s a bit of a mystery. That’s approximately 8000 images that the ‘expert’ checked. One by one that would have taken quite a time.

    It’s a shame that each year the awards are surrounded by controversy. There are many younger photographers doing good work that deserve to be awarded, but it seems the same old names and agencies crop up.

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

      Hi Pete.

      Thanks for your comment.

      I believe that the images were only checked when they went to the second round of judgeing (when most of the photos have been rejected).

      What stanadards are being applied are a mystery because World Press are not transparant about this.

      B

      • Pete

        They must have called for the RAWS then? When somebody says, in this case Gary Knight, that they were pleased to have found and disqualified the 8% of altered images then I feel it’s important to say how they did it. I can’t see how they checked approx 8000 raw files.

        I wished they were more upfront about this otherwise it makes the judging a flawed exercise when they can apply arbitrary standards as and when they want. In the past some winners have obviously been excessively altered to create a certain style. This years winning shot was great no doubt about it, but some of the others were questionable and left me scratching my head in puzzlement.

  • john manfield

    What I find sad is that Gary Knight, Nina Berman, etc, don’t realize that they are influenced by their relationships with the awarded photographers. Would Stanley Greene had won the Aftermath award if Nina Berman didn’t know him and his work, if he was an unknown photographer? Really? The same goes for Gary Knight and Stanmeyer… When you are in a jury, you have to be extremely cautious with the decisions you take. Even if they think they are objective and impartial, they are not, because they already know their friends’ work and they love it, so how can you be impartial??

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

      Yep.