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How Sweet Is Pellegrin? Tweet This   Forward This

25 February 2013

We stumbled across a diverting discussion at The Online Photographer a few days ago which, by the weekend, had taken a twist of its own before reality had a thing or two to say about it. All we had to do was sit back and read, really.

The issue arose over an image in a series of photos on gun culture in Rochester, N.Y. by Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin, who is represented by Magnum. Both the series and the image in question were honored with World Press Photo awards, inviting further scrutiny.


That scrutiny was provided by BagNews Publisher Michael Shaw with RIT Photojournalism professor Loret Steinberg and RIT photojournalism alumnus Shane Keller in When Reality Isn't Dramatic Enough: Misrepresentation in a World Press and Picture of the Year Winning Photo.

In that post, the authors point out that the image caption, which identified Shane Keller, the subject, as a former Marine sniper living in the Crescent area of Rochester, is inaccurate. Keller was not a sniper and has never lived in the Cresent section of town.

Keller, it turns out, is a student at RIT and, concerned about the misrepresentation, tried to clarify things. A classmate identified as Brett, assisting Pellegrin, asked if Pellegrin could shoot his portrait:

Brett called me and said Paolo wanted to photograph portraits of us, which I was fine with. He then wanted to photograph us at a shooting range, which I agreed to, but ethically I thought it was strange that he would ask us to do something for him.

He goes on to say quite a bit more in the story, but that little bit is a revealing statement. Hang onto it.


Because now we're going on to the photographer's rebuttal reported by Donald R. Winslow in Paolo Pellegrin Responds to Claim of Misrepresented Winning World Press, POYI Photos at the National Press Photographers Association site.

Winslow quotes Pellegrin:

Shane doesn't like the caption of the portrait I made of him. (He does acknowledge, however, that this picture was a portrait and I've never indicated otherwise.) Here is the caption for that picture: 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former U.S. Marine corps sniper with his weapon.' Shane agrees that he is a former Marine and that he is standing with his weapon in Rochester. My firm recollection is that Shane described himself that day as a sniper. He may have misspoken; I may have misunderstood; or he may have used the word 'sniper' in a manner that was not meant to imply formal status as a Marine Corps Sniper (he spoke for a long time about sniping). In any event, if Shane was not actually a Sniper in the Marine Corps the caption should be changed to read 'Rochester, NY, USA. A former U.S. Marine Corps member with his weapon.'

He too continues at length, describing the legitimacy of photojournalists making portraits.


It's an engaging discussion and our snippets here don't do justice to the whole argument (which does go off into the woods now and then). But the question we were left with is simply just how ethical is it to do what Pellegrin did.

We know, by now, that it's common for photojournalists to pose subjects. Ruben Salvadori's Photojournalistm Behind the Scenes discusses that technique in a recent eight-minute video.

Common or not, we still find it worth asking whether it's ethical. And that's a tough question to answer.

It's probably a little more precise to ask when is it ethical. And, more importantly, when isn't it.


Then over the weekend we read the news that photographer Ozzie Sweet had, at the age of 94, left us. Sweet made the cover of Newsweek at the end of World War II with a photo of a friend posing as a German solider surrendering.

But he didn't stop there. Over the years he posed a number of celebrities for magazine covers. By the time was done posing the likes of Jackie Robinson sliding into second or Jack Nicklaus faking a follow-through, his photos had made the covers of about 1,800 magazines.

And he didn't apologize for it, either. As his obituary explains:

He considered himself not a news photographer but a photographic illustrator and like the work of the painter Norman Rockwell, whom he claimed as an influence, his signature images from the 1940s through the 1950s and into the 1960s, many in the fierce hues of increasingly popular color film that emulated the emergent Technicolor palette of American movies, helped define -- visually, anyway -- an era.


What makes the Pellegrin discussion so difficult to resolve is its context.

In the context of a magazine cover, the reader expects some liberties to be taken. Posing, retouching, reshaping even. It's understood that the image serves to illustrate the story not tell it.

Context. Clearly an illustration that could accompany a feature story. Mouseover this "artist's conception" to see the detail of Pellegrin's image on which it's based. Does the realism of the photo suggests more than portraiture?

In the context of a news story, however, the reader expects the scene to be genuine, not representative. The caption issue aside (one in which we find Pellegrin's explanation plausible), that's where Pellegrin's approach runs into trouble. We don't expect a photograph to illustrate the news. We expect photographs to document events not illustrate them.

Photography's inherent realism works against it in that context.

Still, it isn't clear what context this series of photos falls into. At least not without seeing the original story.

We'd have no problem with Pellegrin's portraits understood as posed images (which, we have to say, is what we would presume about the questionable image) serving to illustrate a story. In fact, we've processed a detail of his image to show just what that might look like. But mouseover it to see the crop on which it's based and ask yourself how the technique affects your reaction.

Does the photo appear to be simply an illustration done with a camera instead of a paint brush?

That question brings us back to the context. And the collaborative nature of publishing, which itself can add to the confusion.

Therein, we suspect, lies the real story. A publication that panders to its readers rather than challenges them (which it can't do if it confuses the reader) is unfortunately not uncommon. We'll let Sweet have the last word on that:

Photographs of pretty girls occupy more cover space than any other type of subject. Basically there are about four types of magazines which always use girl pictures for covers. These are the fashion, women's, cheesecake and romance publications. On the other hand, farm journals, garden, medical, science, travel, sport, picture and news magazines invariably resort to a girl photograph if they can find a logical excuse. All art editors are fully aware of the pretty girl potential and honestly like to take full advantage of this natural popularity.

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