— David Guttenfelder (@dguttenfelder) February 14, 2014
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%.
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.
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:
4 reasons to love John Stanmeyer’s @WorldPressPhoto winning image. It draws you in, tells a vital story, avoids stereotypes & it’s beautiful
— John Edwin Mason (@johnedwinmason) February 14, 2014