Alessio Mamo’s Photos are Abhorrent, And So Is World Press Photo’s Response

Alessio Mamo’s Photos are Abhorrent, And So Is World Press Photo’s Response

Last week Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a somewhat startling statement regarding his company’s responsibility to tamper down on fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns.

I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong…”

Facebook has struggled with acknowledging and accepting their role as a media company that exhibits enormous control over how its customers consume content. Where moral clarity is needed, Zuckerberg is willing to punt the ball down the field, arguing that policing free speech is a slippery slope. It is. But not always.

Infowars, for example, has built an empire on peddling multiple debunked conspiracy theories, using the ensuing traffic to sell tainted supplements. The choice to ban Infowars from Facebook is wholly defensible if the company is willing to make an ethical choice and take a stand that might cost them followers and revenue.

Which brings us to World Press Photo’s latest controversy.

Like many brands, World Press Photo has built a following of nearly 1 million people by allowing photographers to “take over” the account. According to a Medium post, contributors are given guidelines, but WPP doesn’t otherwise police the content.

On Sunday, WPP award-winner Alessio Mamo posted a conceptual portrait series entitled “Dreaming Food” with poverty-stricken children in India posed in front of plastic food.

These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ [This project has been the subject of much online debate. Please read Alessio Mamo’s statement, released on 24 July 2018, giving more details and apologising for any offence: https://medium.com/@alessio.mamo/my-statement-on-dreaming-food-7169257d2c5c] ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

A post shared by World Press Photo Foundation (@worldpressphoto) on

The reaction from many photojournalists was swift and outraged. The images were a textbook case of poverty porn/white savior complex taken by a photographer who hasn’t spent extensive time in the country, and which relies upon using disenfranchised children as props.

But more outrageous and disappointing was the muted response by World Press Photo claiming that the posts conformed to its guidelines and that they periodically review the guidelines based on feedback.

World Press Photo took a page out of the Zuckerberg playbook by taking no stance upon what is clearly outside ethical norms for the industry. They want to lead the way for visual journalism and storytelling, but lack the moral fiber to call out an ill-conceived photo series published on their Instagram account. 

Mamo has 3,600 followers, World Press Photo has 1 million. Mamo is a single photographer who came up with a controversial way to portray poverty. World Press Photo is an organization that helps define what contemporary photojournalism is by handing out coveted awards each year. They not only have a staff, but resources and an institutional memory that should make it easy for them to say “this is wrong.” They might want to remain neutral, but they have a powerful voice in photojournalism, and they help normalize what is and is not acceptable. They gave the keys to Mamo and when he crashed, they missed an opportunity to lead the industry – opting instead to offer a bulleted list of why everything is fine and dandy from their perch.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 20 comments for this article
  1. Donald Giannatti at 9:45 am

    I couldn’t disagree more, Allen.

    I think the freedom to create magnificent work also allows people to create stupid work.

    I get it that the outrage mob descends on stuff it feels is outrageous and how very important it is for them to signal others that they are outraged. Outrage is just the new ‘social structure’ for many who cannot find a coherent argument.

    This photographer thought he had an idea that merited being shown.

    You and many others believe it should not be. And that is your right.

    But why does the outrage mob get to control what he, or any artist, wants to do.

    I can imagine the outrage mob going after Sally Mann, or Weegee, or Mary Ellen Mark for some of their more edgy photos. Is that what we want?

    “I’m outraged” should not be synonymous with “I will now dictate your ability to create shit”.

    And who will lead this committee to “make sure the thoughts are right” in what is created?

    “Right thinking” scares the shit out of me. Especially in the creation of whatever someone wants to create.

    Government censorship is an abhorrent use of power. But outrage mobs ginned up on twitter trends and retweets are just as dangerous. Maybe more so since it may not be possible to have a dialog with the mob.

    I think the best way is the marketplace. If this photographers stuff is not worth being seen, it will fade and be lost in obscurity. If it has a place, that will be recognized. And people who enjoy the freedom to create their shit should be forthcoming in protecting his shit.

    Or believe me, this whole thing will go to shit.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 3:09 pm

      I don’t have an issue with Mamo creating the work per se. I think it’s different when an organization with considerable sway in the photojournalism industry uses their platform without constraints on ethical practices.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Rebecca at 5:08 pm

      I totally agree with Donald. Let’s not be so easily offended but try to allow people to “agree to disagree”.

    • Darren at 2:55 pm

      I could get behind what you’re saying if the images were shown on a platform centered around artistic work but the biggest problem here, as I see it, is that the photos were presented on a press photo site. This is not photojournalism and therefore should not have been shown by World Press Photo. Right and wrong thinking in art can always be argued, but whether or not images are to be considered works of photojournalism or conceptual art is a question that’s much easier to answer.

  2. NImaT at 6:23 pm

    I am sorry, I will have to disagree with the author. One has to look at this in context. WPP did mot award the work in question-they awarded legitimate photojournalism work by Mamo who then was given access to the Instagram account to use as he wanted within some parameters. I haven’t seen those parameters but having taken over Instagram accounts before, my experience is that the instructions are usually rather broad. The work is admittedly conceptual in nature. I think Facebook is right. The concepts of freedom of expression is there to protect language that the majority find abhorrent, not the popular language which doesn’t need protection. Advocating for a work of expression to be taken down because it is offensive works only so far as the work that is being taken down is against your sensibilities… at the moment the tables are turned and the expression being taken down is one you agree with, you will likely change your position.

  3. Bernard Kane at 7:33 pm

    The work, as I see it, is not photojournalism at all, but conceptual artwork. As such it is fine, properly labeled and understood, but it ought not be furthered under any label of journalism, because it simply is not. I am offended by that, but not by the art.

  4. Rod MacIvor at 4:18 pm

    I think his work should NOT be called out.
    It did what was intended..bring more attention to poverty in India in a very unusual way. BRAVO!!

  5. Michael at 5:27 pm

    3 questions for Allen:

    1) Would you feel differently about these photos if the photographer was not white?

    2) How long should a photographer stay in a country before photographing its people?

    3) Do you believe Mr. Mamo had bad intentions?

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:58 pm

      1. I would feel differently if the photographer was from those cities.
      2. There’s obviously no hard answer. But once or twice to cover a social issue like poverty is a disservice.
      3. Nope. He can shoot whatever he wants and publish whatever he wants. I think the work is insensitive, but my larger issue (as articulated in the piece) is that WPP has a large reach, and if they care about photojournalism then I believe they should scrutinize the work they promote.

  6. Aldente at 5:41 pm

    <

    After having read this trash, I lost all interest to continue on with the article.
    I thought photography was a neutral subject, but willfully injecting “as a matter of fact”pro-liberal propaganda was disgusting.
    I’m un-subscribing and terminate your e-mail notifications.
    Wish I could say ‘it was good while it lasted’.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 10:35 pm

      Photography is neutral? Um, ok.

      At any rate, if ethics in journalism is “pro-liberal propaganda” then I’m guilty. But if you’ve ever called something “fake news,” then I think the conversation is a relevant one.

      • Al Pakulat at 1:02 am

        All art is neutral. It is we who give it a bias. The only exception is that if you are French, then all art is political.

  7. Giovanni Savino at 5:46 pm

    No, Ladies and Gentlemen. It does not matter at all if the work falls into the categories of photojournalism or conceptual photography, if it is valid or if it is pure crap. What matters here is the complete lack of empathy and common sense : not only on the part of the author but even more on the part of whomever promotes, supports and gives a platform to such modus operandi . The simplest thing the author could have done to shift his actions from being completely despicable to being at least barely acceptable would have been to use real food, not props on that stupid red table in the middle of the frame and, playing God, just like many other privileged photographers often do ( because they can), allow the starving people he is suggesting are dreaming of food to have a decent meal after the shoot. People are not things they are human beings. When interacting with them we must be human beings too, not self serving conceptual scumbags and firstly respect their pain and suffering and establish at least an empathic relationship, not use them as additional props, just like the fake food, for your own benefit. Humanity and compassion always MUST come before photography or anything else, at least in my book.

  8. Wayne R. Hale at 9:35 pm

    The art of abstaining from paralysis by analysis. Solution: Investing some of my hard earn cash on kiva.com – In search for farmers from Utter Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, India. End of story.

  9. Bruce Douglas at 10:15 am

    As photographers, our personal work shows our own viewpoint and that is the point. There is a place for outsiders looking into a foreign culture (even misunderstanding it) and a place for insiders to show their own culture with empathy and insight. Alessio has shown a point of view which is part of an ongoing dialog on the issue of hunger and wastefulness. While I would love to see the same issue from the point of view of a person who at least has a background in poverty (like Gordon Parks), Alessio’s voice has the right to be heard.

    I don’t think World Press Photo should be censoring this work. It has the right to be seen, we can then love it or hate it, agree or disagree or dismiss it as a superficial look at a deep subject (which is my own reaction). We don’t need to have some organization like WPP preserving us from engaging with this work.

  10. maya davis at 10:44 pm

    While we can discuss for a very long time whether the work of this photographer is ethical or not and why it has been executed like that, the result of this article is hundreds of very angry and ignorant people on social media insulting the photographer without even reading his statement, asking questions or engaging in a human conversation. Those people dont even think for a second about the idea behind the project but instead take the opportunity and freedom to write comments full of hatred and other nonsense. No discussion about poverty or starvation nor constructive criticism. Instead hateful words towards a person. I wonder if all those haters do actively something about less fortunate people and I wonder even more if for a second, we can actually address the real issue here! For those that feel this is a most shameful thing, please read the news and look how “disgusting” people can be instead of yelling at a photographer.

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