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:
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:
- If Berman was allowed to vote for a member of her own agency do you see this as a conflict of interest?
- 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?
- 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.