Sex, Lies and Lemmings: Hossein Fatemi and the toxification of photojournalismWritten by Benjamin Chesterton
The year long world tour of photojournalist Hossein Fatemi’s controversial Iranian photos is coming to an end.
In a year in which fake news and the abuse of power has never been in sharper focus it’s worth examining some of the incomprehensible decisions that led to Fatemi’s work being given such a massive platform to deceive.
At the heart of this story is an Iranian woman who says she’s not a prostitute being told by a group of guys really she is. Because when it comes to Iranian women the men at World Press Photo know best. They are going to put her naked body on show whilst at the same time admitting they have no idea if the photo or caption are fake. They are going to publicly state that this woman is not even worth talking to.
This story is toxic. You could not make it up. Even though Fatemi did.
Hossein Fatemi is a talented Iranian photographer now based in the USA. Fatemi’s work has been widely published including in the New York Times and Time. In 2017 Fatemi was awarded second prize in the long term projects category at The World Press Awards for An Iranian Journey. It’s a powerful set of photos that reveal a side of Iran we’re not used to seeing in the West.
The award gives Fatemi’s photos a platform that is hard to match. In the last year over four million people will have seen the work in print as part of the World Press exhibition and many, many more will have seen the photos celebrated online.
Not everyone was happy.
To say the least.
The first complaint
The photographer Ramin Talaie privately sent a document to World Press Photo outlining how Fatemi’s work is closer to fiction than fact.
Much, much closer.
The report was detailed and built on the testimony of some of the people in Fatemi’s photos as well as photographers who have worked with Fatemi.
In response World Press Photo commissioned an ‘investigation’, headed up by Santiago Lyon.
On completion Lyon’s investigation was presented to a jury who met to discuss whether or not to rescind Fatemi’s award. A lot of people presumed this was the original jury who awarded Fatemi. Nope. It was a joke jury.
According to their 2017 technical report (a public document covering all issues relating to that years competition) Lyon’s private investigation was sent to a three person jury headed by the Managing Director of World Press Photo, Lars Boering and:
I’m no mathematician but can anyone explain the point of the jury?
According to the rules under every possible scenario Boering, and Boering alone, has final say. It doesn’t make any difference how the other two members of the jury vote. If they vote for the award not to be rescinded and Boering disagrees then according to the rules he gets final say. If they vote to rescind the award and Boering does not, then according to the rules he gets final say.
Fatemi was allowed to keep the award and unsatisfied, given the strength of the evidence, Talaie decided to whistle blow and make his allegations public : 2017 World Press Photo Awards Fake News.
There is a precedent in this.
In 2015 the photographer Giovanni Troilo was investigated by World Press Photo after a number of photographers came forward alleging that some of his photos that had been awarded by World Press were staged.
World Press Photo carried out an ‘investigation’ and found in Troilo’s favour.
Not satisfied the Belgian photographer Bruno Stevens carried out his own investigation and managed to swiftly establish that not only was there an issue of staging in Troilo’s work but that at least one of his captions was deceptive. According to a post by Stevens on Facebook only when he called the New York Times photo editor Michele McNally (chair of the jury), threatening to go public, was the award rescinded.
Fast forward two years and prepare for groundhog day.
The case against Fatemi
Ramin Talaie outlined in convincing detail three major issues with Fatemi’s work.
1: Fatemi took a set of pictures at a private swimming party, where alcohol was being consumed (illegal and punishable with lashes under Sharia law), without the consent of all of those present and without properly informing them that he intended to sell the photos and post them online.
One of the women felt compelled to threaten Fatemi’s photo agency, Panos, with legal action after the photos were published, claiming publication amounted to harassment. Panos removed one photo though it can still be found online, most notably on the website of a renowned museum of contemporary photography.
2: Many of the Fatemi’s photos are staged and the captions intentionally misleading.
3: The ‘prostitute’ pictures he took are fabricated. Fake.
If you are a respectable publisher of news photos you should be damn certain that those photos are not fake.
And if there’s a credible, detailed, evidence based case against those photos, then unless you want to torpedo the credibility of your organisation you, or the photographer, need to address publicly the specific details of those allegations. Which is why the manner of the defence of Fatemi’s photos is beyond a joke. It’s toxic to the industry.
To date there has been at least five claimed ‘investigations’ of Fatemi’s work. Panos pictures, Fatemi’s photo agency, claims to have done an investigation. World Press Photo have carried out an investigation. Laurent Olivier, a photo editor formerly at Time, claims to have carried out an investigation. According to World Press Photo the New York Times has carried out an investigation (though I suspect that’s not actually true). And Talaie has presented detailed evidence of the deceptive nature of Fatemi’s work.
Since World Press continue to celebrate and tour Fatemi’s pictures you’d expect a robust defence of his work.
Four of the five investigations have not been published, even in summary form. Neither Time, World Press Photo, The New York Times nor Panos have published any evidence that contradicts a single one of the major allegations.
Even more extraordinarily Fatemi himself has not been able to publicly present any evidence that contradicts Talaie’s account of his actions.
To put this in context I’ve never known a journalist accused of such gross malpractice not able or willing to defend their work. It’s incomprehensible. It’s reputational suicide.
Instead, predictably, it’s Talaie, the whistle-blower, who has been put on trial.
The Case Against Talaie
To be honest the first I heard of this whole story is when the Managing Director of World Press Photo, Lars Boering, tweeted a link to World Press Photos formal response to the allegations.
The basic gist was, we already investigated this, there’s no issue, anyone commenting about this online is ignorant of the facts but we can’t share any of those facts with you, never-mind, trust us, move on:
‘There is often a lot of social media commentary on issues like this, and we see it already in response to this article. Too often that discussion involves personal issues and disputes and takes place without good evidence from independent sources. By commissioning an independent investigation to inform our post-award jury we have done everything we can to establish what evidence exists relating to the photographs in Hossein’s story, and that alone was the basis for the jury’s conclusion.’ – Lars Boering
This thinking was vehemently backed up by Time photo editor Olivier Laurent who, never missing a chance to kiss ass, decided not to link to Talaie’s post but instead to Boering’s corporate response :
Talaie it seems was inciting a ‘witch-hunt’ and ‘lynching’ against Fatemi:
The major defence of Fatemi’s work seems to to be that those making the allegations are fuelled by personal animosity.
In World Press’ technical report on the 2017 competition (a totally separate document to Santiago Lyon’s investigation of Fatemi’s photos that has never been published) they commented that:
‘In the course of Santiago Lyon’s investigation, Talaie freely stated that the Iranian photojournalism community is rife with personal animosities and resentments.’
World Press Photo would have you believe jealousy is a unique feature of the Iranian photojournalism community which is basically bat shit crazy, making up all these allegations about Fatemi. You know that Middle Eastern temperament …
To be fair Boering and David Campbell (World Press’s Director of Communications) probably wouldn’t know that jealousy is one of the fuels that fires pretty much every newsroom on the planet because, to the best of my knowledge, they’ve never actually worked in one.
Laurent ought to know better. He worked for TIME. Instead of attacking Talaie he could have enlightened us with details of his own report. And instead of linking to the World Press Photo press release he could have read it properly and then asked Boering and Campbell why at every opportunity they were falsely claiming Talaie has not spoken to anyone present when Fatemi was working?
“… the Talaie article collects secondary sources.” – David Campbell
‘It is important to note that Ramin was not present when any of the photos he criticises in the winning story were taken, so he does not have direct experience of the circumstances he discusses. In contrast, our investigation included interviews with people who were actually there when the disputed photos in the contest entry were taken.’ – Boering, Press Release
Wrong. Both investigations include interviews with people there when the photos were taken.
‘Talaie does not have direct, personal experience of the circumstances in which the photographs he questions have been produced. He lives outside of Iran and has not been back since 2009. Instead, Talaie has collected multiple claims from other Iranian photographers about Fatemi’s alleged misconduct. This means the accusations Talaie presents are by definition secondary sources‘ – World Press Technical report.
In respect of sources, once again, totally false. Shall we call this gaslighting?
You’ll have to make up your mind whether World Press Photo are operating in an alternative universe with alternative facts, or just took a cynical decision to play the man by putting out misleading statements in their report and on social media.
Talaie stands by the allegations.
‘I have researched and found the sources, I have interviewed the sources, I have corroborated their stories, compiled and wherever possible cross-checked circumstantial evidence, and provided the entirety of my findings to WPP. My report included relevant contact details with the permission of the sources. Now according to the WPP’s technical report those very same individuals are WPP’s primary sources, and I have secondary accounts? … I would expect that WPP, as a credible journalistic institution, to revise their report and investigation.’ Talaie
Others were quick to point out to Boering on Facebook that when it came to investigating World Press has form on coming to the wrong conclusion.
In an interview to BJP talking about photo manipulation Boering stated ‘it’s industry-wide and we need to debate it. It is something we feel very strongly about – there can be no fake news.’
But debate it in any meaningful way he will not, which is just another example of the gulf between reality and rhetoric at World Press where the wheels were about to come off as Talaie dropped a bombshell on their credibility.
Both Campbell (World Press Director of Miscommunication) and Boering stated that should any more evidence come to light they would investigate.
Once again this turned out to be spectacularly untrue.
One of Fatemi’s photos shows a naked woman lying on a bed facing the wall. You can see it here. Or you can see it at the World Press photo exhibition or any number of places on the web:
The caption reads:
‘Tehran, Iran. A naked woman, with a tattoo at the base of her spine, lies on a bed. The woman is a prostitute working to pay for the cost of raising her two children.‘
In his original post Talaie provides evidence that the photo is staged and that the caption is fake. Talaie himself at this point had not spoken with the woman in the photo (he’d spoken with a photographer who set up and was present at the shoot) but her contact details were passed on to World Press during their investigation.
Since Campbell and Boering were making such a big deal of their investigation speaking with primary sources it was a no brainer that the subject of the photo would be spoken to. Especially since they were about to tour a photo of her naked around the world and label her a ‘prostitute’. A crime in Iran that is technically punishable with death.
They never contacted her.
Talaie did pick up the phone. This is some of his write up of that conversation he had with her:
‘She explained to me that she is a creative person and enjoyed being photographed by both Ali and Fatemi. She went on to explain that everything about the photos were staged and directed by all three of them in a collaborative manner. She didn’t think the photos would be used with misleading captions and painting her as an indigent prostitute who needs to feed her two children.
She told to me that she has had a difficult life at times, but she has never been a prostitute.
Mino (not her real name) explained that at the time of these photos she was separated from her only daughter for almost four years. She doesn’t understand why would Fatemi write this caption about her, “… a prostitute working to pay for the cost of raising her two children.” She didn’t even know where her daughter was at the time of the shoot. Mino painfully disclosed that her first husband had taken the child away from her for several years.
Mino only learned about the publication of the photos when I asked Ali to find her for my reporting … She continued to say that if anyone, including Fatemi or Ali, think of her as a prostitute, then it is their narrow minded view of a woman’s role in the Iranian society.’
World Press did explain why they didn’t make any attempt to speak with the woman in the photo:
‘Being unable to corroborate this person’s identity given the limited information provided, any interview would have been of indeterminate value.’
Let’s just think about that for a moment.
Three western men in power, undertaking an extensive investigation into a set of contested photos, decided that in 2017 the voice of an Iranian woman who is the subject of one of those photos is of ‘indeterminate value’.
I wouldn’t expect World Press to understand why publishing the photo at this point represents not only a gross abuse of power but also two fingers up to basic journalistic principles of accuracy and fairness. This is beyond them.
Lyon (the investigator for World Press) did manage to speak to the woman who arranged for Fatemi to photograph a pool party where alcohol was present. The same woman who had asked Panos to remove her picture from their library fearing for her safety. In speaking to her World Press did not provide her with a translator, none the less it’s absolutely clear that she is angry and unhappy that World Press continue to publish and tour a photo from that shoot. She directly asks them to remove the picture.
The women, the subjects of Fatemi’s photos, are either not believed or deemed not worth talking to by the men running World Press and the man carrying out the investigation.
Writing about the 2016 competition Boering stated in an article on Medium that:
‘We know accuracy and fairness matters because the millions who see our exhibitions around the world tell us (the) most important thing is that they value those photographs and stories because they know they can trust what they see.’
Except they can’t can they? By World Press’ own admission there are now three differing accounts of the ‘prostitute’ photo they are touring:
‘There is no reason to doubt Ramin’s account of his recent conversation with “Mino”. However, the difficulty is that there are now three very different accounts of one scene, with visual evidence supporting elements of only two accounts, but still without providing a clear conclusion.’
The critic Hester Keijser nails just how toxic World Press’ thinking here is to the principles of journalism in her essay The Problem with Photography as a Tool for Social Change.
‘Despite two out of three witnesses denying it was a case of prostitution, WPP decided to give credibility to the one who said it was. Apart from being clearly biased against both other witnesses, WPP does not seem to realise what informed consent means, nor that it is completely beside the point if Mino was paid for sex or if she engaged in consensual sex, or if she is lying about it taking place. Above and beyond discrediting two witnesses and failing to protect the subject, WPP doesn’t seem to realise that by admitting there is not one ‘truth’ to be told, the photograph as a document loses all its validity as an example of good photojournalism.‘
It could not be more basic. If you can’t stand a story up then don’t publish it.
After reading this you’ll be wondering why World Press Photo went ahead and toured a set of photos that by their own admission cannot be trusted?
Bear in mind that Fatemi’s photos have been published by many of the world’s leading newspapers. Bear in mind that World Press Photo have stated that many of these publications have themselves investigated Fatemi’s pictures and found no issue. If they rescind the award it would mean admitting that their own investigation, Panos Photos, Time and the New York Times investigations failed to see Fatemi’s work for the theatre it really is, or worse decided to turn a blind eye.
As Talaie must now be acutely aware it doesn’t pay to rock a small and incestuous scene that above all else celebrates itself, often to the detriment of the people in the pictures.
Personally I don’t think World Press should have investigated Fatemi’s photos.
It’s been a PR disaster for them in which they’ve somehow contrived to gaslight a whistleblower; made numerous misleading public statements; refused to talk to a woman they are parading as a prostitute and ultimately have deceived the public by touring a set of photos they can’t stand by.
Whilst its good news to all those news orgs who published Fatemi’s pics, it’s a slap in the face to the many terrific photographers who practise their work with respect of both journalistic ethics and the people in their pictures.
It’s clear, the last thing that World Press Photo should be doing is investigating photos.
I would have sent Taleie’s allegations to Fatemi and asked him without prejudice or judgement if he wished to withdraw his pictures. I would have made it clear to him (and any photographer who finds themselves in his position) that if the allegations are made public, given their strength, both he and his agency would be expected to publicly defend the work. I would have placed a note on the World Press website and in the exhibition that the photos are disputed, with links given to Taleie’s allegations and Fatemi’s response. And I would have withdrawn the picture of the ‘prostitute’ from the show since there is no editorial justification for it to be there.
I suspect that Fatemi would have withdrawn his work before any of this was made public. But if he chose not to, the public would then at least able to make up their own mind, instead of the charade on show. That’s not just healthy, it’s a necessary and important reminder to audiences to question, always question, what is in front of them. And a reminder to photographers that relationships matter. That there is no excuse for holding the people in your pictures to ransom.
World Press Photo set a new standard for photojournalism. No standard. Basically you can get away with pretty much anything, just a long as there’s no pixels out of place and you stick to your story, any shit goes.
You can be certain. Lemmings in search of awards will follow.