Should Parachute Journalism Be Nominated for Photo Awards?

Are you aware of the issues relating to parachute journalism?

In the recent scandal that broke in the 2020 World Press Photo awards, Iranian photographer, Solmaz Daryani, accused a fellow photojournalist of heavily borrowing from her work. The WPP nominated German photographer, Maximilian Mann, for his series, Fading Flamingos. The project focused on the slow decline of Lake Urmia, Iran. Daryani, however, was working on the same story, and began the work several years before Mann did. Aggrieved, Daryani raised the issue of parachute journalism and the problems it creates for local photojournalists.

What is Parachute Journalism?

Parachute journalism is when a journalist/photojournalist is taken to a part of the world they have little affiliation with. A fixer (someone with local knowledge who can guide) often accompanies the photojournalist to help them execute a story. Some believe this isn’t authentic work, and is a cause of frustration for local photojournalists. They find it unjust that someone who has no connection to the area, doesn’t know its nuances, and has no emotional attachment can be thrust into their world and take over.

Daryani, for example, is an Iranian native and has been visiting Lake Urmia with her family since she was a child. Her connection to Lake Urmia runs deep, and her work holds plenty of emotional value. But yet, here’s someone from the outside, flying in, taking the photos and receiving a nomination for one of the industry’s most prestigious awards. It’s easy to see why Daryani would be upset.

When asked on Twitter how she would like the situation with WPP to be resolved, Daryani wrote:

“…addressing the structures, industry and university and academics that promote and support all this, creating discussions around Parachute journalism capitalizing on local (particularly women) photographers’ work for easy fame and recognition.”

– Solmaz Daryani

Is It So Bad?

Parachute journalism is problematic. It makes sense that publications around the world would send their own to report on important stories. That’s nothing new. The consequence is that it can lead to inaccuracies in reporting, especially if the reporter has little prior knowledge of a situation. But, it becomes even more problematic when an organization like WPP gets involved.

Quality photojournalism is about taking the initiative, it’s about showing the world a new, untold story.

In the world of photojournalism, there are very few organizations that hold the same prestige as WPP awards. The industry is there to celebrate elite level photojournalism. The groundbreaking, the needle moving, the brave, and the hard-working – that’s who belong on such a stage. Can we say Mann raised the bar? In my opinion, we can’t. Some may argue the photos are better. But photojournalism goes far deeper than pretty pictures.

Awards Are for the Elite

Quality photojournalism is about taking the initiative, it’s about showing the world a new, untold story. That’s where the bar is. And for WPP to lower that standard, one they set for so long, only dilutes the quality of the industry.

I said in the previous piece that we had to be extremely careful before shouting out plagiarism. I stand by that. But we do need to separate original photojournalism and the type that’s given to someone on a plate. The latter should serve a purpose, but the former is the one that we should recognize at the elite level.