On the 21st of March, I’ll be talking about manipulated and staged images at the Photography Show in Birmingham. When I was contacted by the magazine Professional Photography to ask me if I wanted to be part of one of their round tables, it brought back quite painful memories: Four years ago I got caught in a fight between Gypsies and Travellers’ communities and Channel 4 over pictures I took on Gypsy sites Channel 4 manipulated.
It all started in December 2011, Channel 4 hired me to do the promo shoots of their forthcoming Big Fat Gypsy Weddings programme (which started on the 14th of February 2012) resulting in huge billboards all over the UK.
The brief I was given was appealing : C4 wanted me to work the way I usually do, spending time with people and shoot in a photojournalistic way, “the kind of 1970s Life Magazine style”, they said. They also added they wanted to be as far as possible from me to really let me work as I usually do and then get the most natural pictures.
I took the challenge and spent more than one month from sites to sites photographing Travellers who were featured in the TV show. They gave me a lot of their time and were very happy with the idea of appearing on big posters. Channel 4 ended up choosing 4 images and without telling me, they printed the horrible “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.” slogan on my pictures.
They also manipulated two images: they cropped and reversed the photo of the two girls and therefore took it out of its party context. They also cropped the photo of the boy and made him look aggressive by darkening his look and eyebrows.
Within days, more than 300 complaints were sent to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) against Channel 4 by members of the public and the Traveller community saying the billboards campaign was offensive and racist. On the 22nd of February, the ASA cleared C4. “We did not consider the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence or be seen as irresponsible or harmful and will not therefore be taking any further action,” the ASA said in a statement.
Travellers’ communities were very angry with this statement and I decided to help by sharing with the Traveller Movement‘s lawyers an email I had received from Channel 4 showing how they had radically changed their brief and how they wanted to show Gypsies and Travellers in a stereotyped and diminishing way. I was supported by Time Out who wrote this piece at the time:
Six months later in October 2012, the ASA ruled that Channel 4 BFGW advertising campaign was irresponsible, offensive and reaffirmed negative stereotypes and prejudice against Travellers and Gypsies. The ASA banned the poster of the boy and the one with the two girls.
Also, the posters were one thing but the programme itself, the way it was shot, the way Gypsies and Travellers were shown, especially the last series in 2012, was very diminishing, re-inforcing stereotypes most of the Gypsies and Travellers had been spending decades to fight. I really thought the OFCOM would ban or fine Channel 4 but they didn’t: In 2015, I was very disappointed Gypsy campaigners had lost their high court challenge over Ofcom’s handling of their complaint about Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding television programmes.
Even though I was not responsible for the slogan and the photo manipulation, their use on my pictures put me in a very uncomfortable position and were prejudicial to my long-term work with Gypsies, Travellers and organisms representing them. It also damaged my reputation. It tought me the lesson most of us tend to easily forget: never play with the devil.
If you want to hear more about the story and also listen to photographers Paul Sanders, Martin Middlebrook and Edmond Terakopian on the subject of manipulated and staged images, come and see us at the Photography Show in Birmingham on the 21st of March: the round table is from 2 till 3 pm.