Award-winning Paolo Pellegrin photo becomes subject of controversy

BagNews | NPPA | The New York Times | APhoto Editor | Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
This much is clear: Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin’s image of a former Marine sniper in a rough Rochester, N.Y., neighborhood doesn’t depict a former Marine sniper. The rest gets complicated.

Shane Keller was the subject of Pellegrin’s photo, which was among the images for which he won Pictures of the Year International’s Photographer of the Year – Freelance/Agency honors. In a post published Friday on BagNews, Keller said he’s not a former sniper, and that when Pellegrin photographed him he wasn’t living in the neighborhood in question, the Crescent:

I lived in a very safe neighborhood next to the Jewish Community Center along the border of Brighton and Henrietta. I probably could even have left my doors unlocked without fear of someone breaking in while I was gone.

The BagNews post also accuses Pellegrin of writing photo captions that were “almost wholly plagiarized” from an old New York Times story.

Pellegrin said he was surprised BagNews didn’t contact him for comment; “It seems somewhat strange to me that while mounting a purported journalistic high horse they themselves did not follow the basic tenets of fair and professional journalism,” he wrote in a statement published on the website of the National Press Photographers Association. The authors of BagNews’ piece replied that what they were writing was an act of criticism and didn’t require a call:

If the mission of our site was traditional news reporting or investigative journalism, we would surely have been remiss for not offering Mr. Pellegrin a platform to respond to our image critique. As it turns out, however, he was afforded thorough access by those leading organizations that actually do specialize in the reporting of photo news.

One of those organizations is The New York Times, which reached Pellegrin by phone. “I don’t understand what the big controversy is about,” Pellegrin told David Gonzalez and James Estrin. He admitted that he had forgotten Keller’s name, which did not make the caption. “What I remember was that he was a former soldier,” Pellegrin said. The captions in question, Pellegrin told the Times, were “never meant to be published.” (And indeed, Magnum does not always appear to burn much editorial energy on captions.)

“If there’s anything to be outraged about, it’s that one of photojournalism’s brightest stars is sloppy and thinks it’s not a big deal,” Rob Haggart writes.

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  • Sean Anderson

    As a photographer, those captions are just a bit of context required to make people see the drama that you see. It’s just a catalyst for that. I’ve no doubt that many captions in photography books are made up or misremembered, and it doesn’t feel any more false than Georges Seurat calling his famous pointillist painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. There was no particular afternoon, it’s just a caption and a trigger. A cure for our strange need to have a textual description of everything.

    Perhaps all this changes when you send it to a newspaper, and Pellegrin is guilty of not putting his journalist hat on when it was needed?