When Getty Wins, We All Win
The Dramatic Moment

Just Make It Happen

Paolo Pellegrin is one of the most successful photographers working today. He works with the most high-profile magazines, he publishes books, is a member of the most prestigious photo agency (Magnum), contributes to interesting projects and regularly wins major contests. So natually, he’s easy enough to hate.

Still, until his work was called into question last week by BagNews Notes, it’s fair to say he was also widely respected.

Predictably, Pellegrin is catching most of this heat from people he doesn’t know, while receiving most of his support from people he does. Which makes me wonder, not knowing him, but having admired his work for a long time and owning at least one of his books (maybe more), what kind of advice I would have given him last Friday when the story first broke.

Here’s the original piece by BagNews Notes.

So if Paolo was a friend of mine, I would have first been upset that BagNews Notes didn’t contact him and get his side of the story before they published their piece. I know BagNews doesn’t consider themselves a journalistic operation, but in a story that has this much potential to destroy a person’s career, you should give them a call.

You do it for three reasons. One, to give the accused a chance to defend themselves (even the condemned get to say their last words, or at least given time for a smoke). Two, you want to appear to be fair. And three, you want your target to have a statement on record that isn’t a carefully crafted response written by a PR firm designed to pick apart your accusation. Basically, you want to help them hang themselves with a hasty and panic driven response. It’s journalism 101 folks, maybe that’s why BagNews screwed it up.

After I was done being upset with BagNews, I’d be upset with Paolo. I would have advised him to immediately contact BagNews and admit he had made a mistake with his captions. I would have told him to take all the blame upon himself. I would have encouraged him to make a full apology to the subject in his photo, the people of Rochester, the judges who rewarded him for this work, his fellow photojournalists and to disqualify himself from the competitions.

That said, Pellegrin is not a friend of mine, and it appears no one else offered him this kind of advice (or if it was offered he chose not to follow it).

Here’s Pellegrin’s response.

Instead, Paolo Pellegrin attacked... everybody. He took no responsibility for his own actions. He constructs straw-men to whack down while at the same time blaming everyone but himself.

My way, end of controversy. Paolo’s way, fuel on the fire.

Here’s BagNews’ response to Pellegrin’s response.

Caption mistakes are one thing. Anyone can make that kind of mistake. Personally, I’m not a big fan of captions. I want viewers to see the photograph and then go to the caption to enhance and add to their understanding of the image. This controversy is no longer about poor, misleading or “lifted” captions. This is now about a self-proclaimed “documentary” photographer who manipulates people and uses them as props to illustrate a story narrative he’s made up in his head.

I thought these issues had been worked out by now. You don’t use people for props. You don’t manipulate them into doing things they aren’t doing and you don’t ask them to pose for you and then pretend it’s a situation that you’ve happened upon. This is the 21st century and as journalists we’ve had these conversations countless times. Walker Evans shouldn’t have moved the furniture. Gene Smith shouldn’t have sandwiched negatives. The guy who’s name I don’t remember shouldn’t have removed the Coke can.

Were we not clear on this?

I thought we’d moved on to questions that are harder to answer, like how much can we tweak our color palette?

Photographs aren’t a clear representation of reality. A skilled photographer willing to shamelessly manipulate a person can make them appear to be whatever they want. That’s why it’s important to have an ethical code of standards. Not just for the industry as a whole, but as an individual also.

My code goes something like this;

I try to represent the person I’m photographing in the most truthful way possible. They should recognize themselves in the images I make of them. This doesn’t always result in the best image, but it’s an attempt to be truthful and “true” to the subject.

My second responsibility is to myself. I want to make images that I’m proud to hang on a wall or see published in a magazine. If the image doesn’t meet my standards I could careless if the publisher thinks it’s a great image or not.

The final responsibility is to the editor that hired me. I don’t want them to regret the fact they did. I want them to go into the layout meeting with an image that’s better than they or their bosses could have hoped for. That way nobody losses their job and I might even get hired again. However, I’m not going to construct an image that misrepresents my subject even if it means the image doesn’t meet my standards or the publishers.

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of heat and lost a few jobs (and probably a contest or two) because of this personal set of rules. To paraphrase Lite, Put your seatbelt on, boy. I don't ride with anybody 'less they wear their seatbelt. It's one of my rules.

To be honest, I do bend this rule when it comes to politicians (and sometimes people of power). I figure a politician on the campaign trail is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each day to manipulate me and my photos, so they’re fair game. It’s a more honest approach than the mock “behind the scenes” images so popular today. Where the magazines throws out any pretense of objectivity in exchange for not losing this prized “access” by publishing a photo that might be displeasing to the politician or his staff.

I guess this is what really upsets me about Paolo Pelligrin’s work and the caviler attitude towards objections and criticism people have made about it. He claims to be broaching subject matter that the “elites” wouldn’t dare touch when in reality he’s manipulating those without power to promote his own elitist agenda.

In a world where the press has abandoned its traditional watchdog role, and is only concerned with giving itself awards and cuddling up to the powerful he’s not an anomaly, he’s their ideal creation.

Magnum, the most prestigious photo agency of all time, doesn’t know what it is. Is it a place for artists, journalists or some type of combination of the two? Magnum’s most successful photographers are probably in the artist camp and are masters of the “found” image. While one of their most successful documentary photographers (not Paolo) is widely known to regularly set-up pictures. This is a problem.

Photo editors, who encourage photographers to “make it happen” (oh how many times I’ve heard those wretched words) and/or disappear for month long stretches to prepare their contest entries are also a major problem.

Contests... well, if World Press or POY doesn't demand to see the entire take... I’m talking Pellegrin’s entire hard drive from Rochester and scrutinize how he works from start to finish (are there fifty frames with different poses and lighting schemes of the “portrait” in the parking garage), their credibility is over. These are photojournalist contests after all.

The bottom line, is this photojournalism thing is broken. If you’ve ever seen a horde of Dutch photographers (home of World Press Photo) work a woman’s team of gold medal winning water-polo players, you’d agree. The people that should be working to fix this, the powerful editors and highly respected older statesmen, are (with some notable brave and bold exceptions) either making excuses, keeping their mouths shut or benefiting from the situation.

Sling your rocks and arrows below. Please don't hesitate to remind me that I'm old and outdated, and thus have no idea what I'm talking about.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


This was not a conceptual photography contest. I think that's all there is too this.

How sad for Pellegrin that he submitted a conceptual photograph to a photojournalism contest.

Patrick Downs

This is a critically important issue. For me, the boundaries of what is and isn't honest in photojournalism and documentary work is pretty clear cut. Maybe others have a different, more subjective idea. Credibility of the media may be at an all-time low, and must be protected and rehabilitated. Otherwise, good honest work that deserves a wide audience will be dismissed out of hand as suspect, unreliable, or dishonest. That would be a tragedy, for the reader and the practitioners. Photojournalists will be extinct soon enough, crowd-sourced into oblivion. (I just saw a TV ad for a smartphone, in which they called everyone who uses them "photojournalists"... all 1 million. Not kidding.)


This is without a doubt the best thing I've read about this situation. I agree with every single word. Thank you. PJ contests have become self masturbatory affairs and are filled with photos that are over imaged and flat out frauds.


Hey, anybody who quotes Repo Man is all right by me. And I totally agree.

Jim Colton

Well said Ken, as usual. Another contention of this old man is that there is too much weight placed on these contests as well. I've often described photo contests as "gravy." It's nice to have it on your mashed potatoes every once in a while, but ya still have to have the potatoes. Photo contests will not make or break your career...and the only judge you really have to impress is yourself. So go out and make good pictures (not create them). Tell great stories and hope someone likes the images as much as you do. That's all that matters. Keep on truckin' Ken! Jim Colton.

Michael A Shapiro

Please, as a photojournalist, quit appropriating terms from other walks of life. You cannot have documentary photographers. Why? Because I will choose my lens, my subject, my time, and my space. If I want to make documentary portraits, I will. If I want to move a shiny white garbage bag out of a documentary of a day in my life, I will. If I want to position a mirror to get a better reflection, I might.

If you as a pj, cannot allow this, then you had better let go of a lot of territory. Ken Light's documentary portraits in Mississippi were lit. My documentary portraits of foreclosure victims are posed and lit, albeit posed as they saw fit. Do not insult documentary photographers by calling them photojournalists and then tell them how to shoot.

Re Magnum: It is not called Magnum Photojournalism. Each photographer can shoot how he/she wants. Harvey uses lights; hell, he teaches lighting classes. Young Soth sets up everything. I've even heard descriptions of Koudelka placing people before shooting. So, where's the problem? This is what good photographers do. How about some of those great Erwitt shots of people and their dogs? You think they weren't posed, just a little?

What do you mean about Evans and Smith? Why shouldn't they, as skilled photographers, not make the photo as good a one as possible? Years ago, I mentored with one of the NPPA photogs, in fact, one of the presidents. He helped me with a POY entry one year. I was directed to crop, dodge, burn, etc. until the photo looked the best. He probably looked at each photo a dozen times before he was satisfied. Do you remember Nachtwey's winning photo of a woman working in a garden or rice paddy or something? Do you think it came out of the camera like that?

As for wrong captions, maybe editors shouldn't continue requiring them. They only detract from the photo, anyway.


The problem, Michael Shapiro, is not with setting up pictures. The problem is when a photographer is not honest about it. When a photo is presented as a truthful, found moment. And it is, in fact, not a found moment. You appear not to subscribe to that practice. Fine. Your choice. Many find that practice deceitful. And detrimental to photojournalism.

Tom Leininger

I keep getting hung up more on the initial story and how it came about. Why not have the professor and two photographers attempt to contact Pellegrin before going public. If it is an issue about the caption, which the one person in the image has a real problem with. It is them extracted to including the image in the story. That is my reading, and I am sure others have read it differently. I have a bigger problem with a tenured professor who teaches ethics participating in a one sided story, that question seems to have been lost. My hunch is a writer would have called just to see if the accused would confess, then it is a story. Both sides clearly have an agenda, so my instinct is the that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

I think it could also be a case of false photographic idolatry. Students saw how someone, who from their point of view did not have the same ethics they did, and could not handle it. Their idol crumbled and it made them angry. Only three people know the truth of what really happened and what was said, and I doubt that will every come to light.

I really wish the idea of pure past where no ethical lapses happened, except for a few, would be destroyed. Pictures have been posed and overworked in the darkroom for decades. Some of those pictures probably have won major awards too.


Tom, the question of BagNewsNotes not contacting Pellegrin before publishing has not been lost at all. Did you not read Ken's take, above? He addresses it directly and says he had a problem with it. And if I am not mistaken the NYTimes Lens Blog also commented on the issue. Not sure what else you want.

Furthermore, Pellegrin has since issued a statement, and been interviewed. And his statements have not caused BagNewsNotes to change their original story at all.

I do not believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Pellegrin did not dispute that the picture was not taken in "The Crescent" and did not dispute that the circumstances of how the photo came about was massaged, to put it lightly. He also did not dispute that the extended caption was from another news source. He just didn't seem to think these were serious issues.

The only real factual dispute, as I see it, is did Keller tell Pellegrin he was a sniper, or not. And that's the only issue in this mess that they know the truth about.

Brian Woods

Working from the video side, these sorts of things always annoyed me. I whole-heartedly endorse your idea or seeing the whole "roll" of pictures. It always annoyed me when the people who won TV awards were the people who the station allowed to work in their stories for days, never the people who turned in perfect pieces in minutes. Without some background into how and why the photos were created, how can you judge them as journalism?

Tom Leininger

@RonnScott I did read his take, and I applaud Ken for taking that point of view. I find a number of bloggers and others lining with the actions of Bag News as the right thing, which is what gets me more than anything. It

I guess it is easier to take on Pellegrin, since he is a name and established. Not two young guys starting out who may have had second thoughts about posing pictures.

Manuello Paganelli

Kenneth bravo!... THis is what I wrote 3 days ago on bagnewsnotes.com/

My first reaction to this loaded missile is, "In fairness, was Magnum or Paolo P reached out before writing this article and going public?" No knowing what their response would be and If all of these things are true then the revelations here are very disturbing and viciously damaging including the article mentioned here and credited to Pellegrin which is similar to the one that appeared 10 yrs earlier in the NYT.

Again, if all of these writings are in fact accurate then Shane Keller is asking the right questions as to why a well known photographer representing such a distinguish photo agency with a long standing pedigree would stoop to that level for the sake of raking up awards. No to mention the negative repercussion in so many ramifications that could come knocking on Mr. Keller's door for years to come.

I too would love to hear the other version from Paolo & Magnum and if Keller is right then why those steps where taken which clearly violates and goes beyond the proper moral conduct of photojournalist all across the globe.

Manuello Paganelli
Los Angeles California

Nina Alvarez

On the question of whether or not the subject was a US Marine sniper - Paolo says that he distinctly recalls the claim. I'm so sorry he took his word for it, if in fact that is what he was told. We all know sometimes people recall their role in things differently than other do or the official record would show- whether it is a war or the founding of facebook. You can verify and confirm with the US military - especially for people that have been discharged. In my own experience, (television news and documentary) I have had individuals claim certain military rank, duties, deployment dates and locations - that they either lied about, exaggerated or were simply mistaken. We checked before going on air - and in one case, one individual claimed the circumstance of the loss of his legs was combat injury -- when in fact, it was a car crash. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN EMBARRASSING. It is not hard to check - it is worth the time and trouble to check, especially when you have the time and it is not being published in tomorrow's paper. Certainly there are other contentious issues - but this one is very cut and dry.

Patrick Downs

Meanwhile, from BJP's Facebook page:

Following the Paolo Pellegrin controversy that emerged last week, World Press Photo has reviewed the information it received and has now issued the following statement:

"Upon reviewing the image and caption of former marine Shane Keller in Paolo Pellegrin’s story on The Cresent that was awarded a second prize in the General News Category of the World Press Photo contest 2013, the jury is of the opinion that although a more complete and accurate introduction and captions should have been made available by the photographer, the jury was not fundamentally mislead by the picture in the story or the caption that was included with it."

WPP is wrong. Ken is right. This photo was a lie, a fabrication.

Patrick Downs

World Press completely dodges the real issue of a totally set-up photo where the subject was intentionally misrepresented and used as a prop to illustrate something he had little or no connection to.

The photo itself misleads ... and the caption could (maybe) have fixed that, but that is not the point. The WPP completely misses the mark with their statement -- "the jury was not fundamentally mislead by the picture in the story" The viewer certainly is, if they thought Shane was a criminal or shady character from the Crescent, as the picture implies. The photo implies impending violence or use of force with firearms, defending ones' self while under siege in the Crescent. A sinister looking setting with dramatic lighting. Except the subject isn't violent, owns the guns legally, isn't a bad guy or otherwise involved in shady stuff, and doesn't live in the Crescent. (As one commenter on BJP's Facebook post said " It makes him look like a vigilante, in the street at night. Nothing portrait about it.") And the photo wasn't taken in the Crescent, which the story was about. We're parsing ... the photo is posed, an illustration. I am tired of this "gun culture" crap too, which Pellegrin said he wanted to illustrate. No one can even define that. If you own 1 skeet gun are you part of it? I have doctor friends who own 50 guns, used only for sporting purposes. Are they part of it? What is it? In this case, it is a pre-conceived Euro-centric label, an assumption and vague euphemism, and you know what happens when you assume... Now, if you want to talk about a culture of violence, that is more measurable. Why didn't Pellegrin do a better job of documenting that, if it's true?

I don't know how many people outside these discussions/threads really care about this. I hope many, but if journalists don't police their ranks and call out deceptive work, the credibility of journalism goes further down the toilet. The public trust of "the media" is already at an all-time low.

Tom H

The issue isn't so much that it was posed, but rather staged. Posed is having someone do something they normally do in the context (and location) of the story. Staged is someone being photographed doing something they normally wouldn't do in another location. If Mr. Keller lived/worked in the Crescent, and normally came out of his apartment with a shotgun and sling of ammo, then I can see posing the picture, getting the light correct etc.. BUT, this does not seem to be the case. Instead it was photographed some 6 miles away, which depending on direction may not even be in the City of Rochester, much less the Crescent. The claim of, 'I'm not not sure where I was' and 'I don't remember' just doesn't fly in photojournalism. Digital recorders and/or pencil and paper are cheap and always carried. This is the aspect that bothers me the most....where are the man's notes?

Patrick Downs

That is a good clarification i suppose. Staged, set up, fabricated ... fake! Never would have happened if the photographer didn't art direct it.


Well put. Thank you for writing out much of what I've been thinking. I do not, however, think that BagNewsNotes has any obligation to get a response from Pellegrin any more than you are from them or anyone else you talk about on this blog. Their article was not an accusation, it was a statement of facts with a layer of "this sucks." The "whistleblower" was the subject of the photograph, Shane Keller, who happens to be a photojournalism student.
I love the work that Michael and the rest of the BNN staff does, and I hope they continue doing it as they do it now, from the sidelines. And I'm very happy to have found your blog now.

Davin Ellicson

Everyone who is criticizing Pellegrin should watch the video here (scroll down). He seems to be all about research, hard work and quality. I think part of the issue is the difference between American style newspaper photojournalism and the much more artistic and interpretive European style long espoused by the likes of Gilles Peress and other Magnum photographers:



I don't agree with KJ. Everytime a documentary photgrapher makes a body of work he/she is presenting an issue through her eyes/mind ideas. It is not objective and it can never be. I think that Pelegrin included the photo in question as it contributed to expressing how he felt about what he was experienceing in the Crescent felt.
@Patrick Downs: you made a comment about a commercial which stated that evryone having a smartphone is a photojournalist; I believe that one way to distinguish oneself is by having a distinct point of view, otherwiese, you are right: phjotojournalism will be extict, as with so many amatours armed with camers and/or smart phnes there will always be good enough pictures of an event/situation/place. What makes a difference is to have a vision and that is why I justify Pellegrin's use of the "problematic" image.


One fraud exposed, a million others missed! People will rationalize anything to the nth degree when money and fame are involved. Need proof? Look to Hollywood and Washington before digging in your own backyard, they're the model for all of this kind of behavior. And, who cares as long as you get to live in a big house, right? In this business it's funny to watch others police those that cross the line, but in the real world where crossing the center line with your car might cost you and others a life, it's a whole other issue. Take a look around, there are so many offenders today, who could write (or right) all of the offenses being perpetrated? Meanwhile, photography (pj, documentary, etc.) ambles on in mythology just like Louis L'Amour's wild west. Or, better yet, Butch and Sundance's:

Harvey Logan: "Rules? In a knife fight? No, rules!"

Butch Cassidy: Well if there aren't going to be any rules, let's get the fight started. Someone count 1,2,3 go..."

The Sundance Kid: "1,2,3 go!"

The comments to this entry are closed.