© Giovanni Troilo, J. keeps his gun hidden in a box in the woods of Bois du Cazier. This is more secure than keeping them at home since he regularly gets visits from the police., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.
© Giovanni Troilo, Gas supply tubes run along the houses built near the steel factories of Charleroi. Before the electric upgrade of the blast furnace, these tubes used to provide the energy needed for this operation., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.
It’s the discussion everyone is having in the photography community since the 2015 World Press Photo awards were announced: Giovanni Troilo won the contemporary issues category with a visual essay about the town of Charleroi, in Belgium, entitled “The Dark Heart of Europe“. In the official site, one can read the following description “Charleroi, a town near Brussels, has experienced the collapse of industrial manufacturing, rising unemployment, increasing immigration and outbreak of micro-criminality. The roads, once fresh and neat, appear today desolated and abandoned, industries are closing down, and vegetation grows in the old industrial districts.”
So far so good, but the controversy started once claims arose about the performative nature of the photographs. Apparently, italian photographer Giovanni Troilo staged some of the photos in order to better convey a feeling of decadence of Europe. Having seen the photos, Charleroi’s mayor Paul Magnette sent a letter to World Press Photo claiming that the award be removed on grounds of the essay not constituting a documentary portrait of Charleroi. Excerpts of such letter are all over the web. At one point Magnette writes:
“He [Giovanni] claims to be doing investigative journalism; a photo essay reflecting a simple reality. But this is far from being the case: the falsified and misleading captions, the travesty of reality, the construction of striking images staged by the photographer are all profoundly dishonest and fail to respect the codes of journalistic ethics. In our opinion, this work does not comply with the objective of the competition.”
This particular image above is accompanied by a caption saying “Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons”, however the author explains that the photograph was staged with a friend’s car and his cousin inside. His approach is not only questionable because of its theatricality, but mainly because it is dishonest: the captions do not correspond to the reality of the singular and individual daily life in Charleroi, instead they are used in order to apply to a virtual (and apparently universal) idea of what the darkness in Europe looks like.
This image shows Philippe Genion as an obese and decadent man. The caption reads: “Philippe lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the town.” Not that we needed to read mayor Magnette’s response to understand the inauthenticity of such an image, for it is obviously overstaged and sensationalist, but he adds to the confusion by saying:
“Mr. G. is a prominent figure, earthy and very attached to his region. Far from the image given him by photographer who seems to have wanted to build his image by referring to the ‘neurotic obesity’ mentioned in the introductory text of Giovanni Troilo.”
“Let’s take the example of corpulent man posing in his interior space. The dramatic lighting of the scene and the caption of the photo suggest that this person is a recluse inside his own home to escape violence in his neighborhood. This is actually Philippe Genion, a well-known personality in Charleroi who loves posing topless. He lives in a popular neighborhood, but relatively peaceful. His house is also a wine bar. So we are far from the image referring to the “neurotic obesity” conveyed by the photographer. Philippe Genion has also given several specific details about Troilo’s team mise-en-scène on its Facebook page. He specified that the photographer had clearly told him that he “was not doing a documentary, but a photography project”. For me, it’s another serious deontological mistake to have presented his work in such a way.”
The issue is far from over. Troilo is yet to respond to mayor Magnette’s letter and the World Press Photo jury is expected to explain their position regarding the story at hands. But what is really expected? That photography be a document of reality when we know it to be always subjective? That near-documentary photographs be discredited by their theatricality even though they often present a better visual understanding of a particular social reality? That manipulation be 100% excluded from photojournalist practice, even if the barriers between documentary and photojournalism keep being blurred? Or may it be that our problem concerns not the photographer, not the images, but the man who comes forth as an author? May it be that the core of the problem deals with the overall authority of a man’s words and his authenticity?