I wanted to write a short update to my previous piece about conflicts of interest and transparency in the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize. After a rather drawn out back and forth with The Photographers Gallery they have provided me with the guidelines used by the jury and chair. You can read them in their entirety here, but I just want to focus here on the bits that relate to what I actually talked about in my piece: transparency and conflicts of interest. Before launching into that I think it’s worth mentioning that the gallery maintain the line that there was no conflict of interest in this year’s judging as the The Winners book was not part of the shortlisted exhibition. Milach states here that the series The Winners project was part of the shortlisted exhibition Refusal. I think the gallery are trying to draw a very fine semantic line in distinguishing between the project and the book in this way, but as we will see in a moment the competition guidelines give them that perogative, and that’s really the problem because as they stand the rules are incredibly open ended.
The DBPF prize rules state that jury members must: ‘Disclose any personal involvement with specific bodies of work nominated for the prize to the panel.’ They also state that the chair must ‘Rule out any projects nominated where a member of the jury would financially benefit from the award.’ The rules say nothing about any other conflicts of interest, for example where a nominated photographer is a relative (but would not in any obvious sense gain financially from the award) or where a jury member has been closely involved in another part of the photographer’s work or career besides the project nominated. In the absence of more detailed guidelines it’s essentially up to the jury and chair to decide what constitutes a conflict of interest (and for that matter what constitutes financial gain), and as these deliberations are treated as confidential there is absolutely no transparency about how this is decided or managed.
In short what this means is that my own mother could be a juror standing in judgement of my work, and could have been heavily involved with every aspect of my career except the project under consideration and if you follow these guidelines to the letter that would not be considered a conflict of interest. Even if she disclosed this (which she wouldn’t have to) it would then be up to the jury and chair to decide if that represented a conflict of interest, and if they decided it wasn’t then they wouldn’t have to justify their decision to anyone, or even reveal that it had been discussed.
Maybe I find this all staggering because I haven’t spent my entire career working in photography and the arts. None of the other sectors I’ve worked in; public health, international development, and academia, would tolerate such ambiguity and opaqueness in a process leading to an award of £30,000. This isn’t even to consider the implications for photography in a broader sense when one realises the role these prizes play in influencing taste, and when so many people (including many of my students) look to awards as a yardstick for what contemporary photography matters, and by association what does not. In my view the rules of the prize, particularly those that relate to conflicts of interest, need drastically strengthening and when conflicts of interest do occur the process by which they are dealt with needs to be made far more transparent to the public who support the gallery’s activities. To the people who criticised me for not contacting the gallery or jury before publishing that was precisely the point of the piece, that this information shouldn’t need to be sought, it should be given.
Based on my exchange with the gallery they seem to be intent on sticking to the line that everything is fine, and won’t engage with the idea of even reviewing the rules, much less changing them. Again if you feel as I do that this is not an ok way for them operate, please let them know it. I am not going to delve in detail into the pressure and personal abuse I’ve been subjected to for bringing this issue up, driven in large part by the (sometimes I think intentional) misrepresentation of my writing, or by people who have weighed in to the discussion without actually reading what I wrote. Even the gallery initiated their dialogue with me by describing my piece as ‘misleading’ and ‘inaccurate’ without qualifying those claims with any evidence, and then not providing evidence even when I asked them to do so. Suffice to say I am not cowed by this, I am still here, and I will still draw attention to these things when I see them occur.
There is a section of the photography world that needs to learn quite a bit from this episode (but probably won’t). For starters it needs to learn to distinguish the personal from the professional, because that is what is at the core of many of the problems here. It needs to learn not to shoot the messenger, but to engage with the message however unpalatable its contents might be, and to be open to self-critique and change in response. Lastly it needs to learn what transparency and conflicts of interest actually are, and why clarity and openess about them are so important. Otherwise the higher echelons of our industry will always be an insiders game, lacking in transparency to the audiences who it claims to engage. In the long run that will only harm photography, and the people who make and enjoy it.