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Patron of international photography prize accused of censorship [update]

A portrait of Somayyeh, a 32-year old divorced teacher © Newsha Tavakolian for the Carmignac Foundation

Newsha Tavakolian, recipient of this year’s Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, returns her €50,000 grant and releases a statement declaring her “artistic freedom” was compromised

Little more than two months after being named the recipient of this year’s Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, Newsha Tavakolian has released a public statement declaring that she is returning the prize money and stepping down as this year’s winner, due to “irreconcilable differences” over the presentation of her work.

Tavakolian, who was born in Tehran in 1981, was awarded the €50,000 prize for her report on young people in her home country, illustrating how many are caught between an increasingly modern society and the religious and cultural traditions of old.

In the statement, which was published on her Facebook page on 11 September, she writes: “I am cancelling all my co-operation with this foundation and its patron, the French investment banker Edouard Carmignac. It continues: “My acceptance of the terms of the award from the Carmignac Gestion Foundation was based on the understanding that I would have full artistic freedom as a photographer to create a work that is faithful to my vision as an established photojournalist and art photographer. Unfortunately, however, from the moment I delivered the work, Mr Carmignac insisted on personally editing my photographs as well as altering the accompanying texts to the photographs.”

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Another point of contention was the project’s title, according to Tavakolian, who claims: “Mr Carmignac’s interference in the project culminated in choosing an entirely unacceptable title for my work that would undermine my project irredeemably… His insistence on changing the name of the project from Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album to the overused and loaded title, The Lost Generation, was simply not acceptable to me.”

Tavakolian added that the title, purportedly chosen by Carmignac, “chang[ed] the nature of my project from a subtle attempt to bring across the realities of life of my generation in Iran to a coarse and horrible clichéd view about [the country]”.

The statement ends with the declaration:  “I am now left with little choice but to pull out of this award because of the insistence of the Carmignac Gestion Foundation to compromise my artistic integrity and independence. I hereby return and officially step down as the 2014 laureate of the Carmignac Gestion Award for photojournalism. My artistic freedom and my integrity cannot be bought.”

BJP approached the Carmignac Foundation, which has been running the Award since 2009, for a comment and received a reply today, [Wednesday 17 September]. In the statement emailed to BJP, the Foundation denies the accusation that it censored Tavakolian’s work: “The current argument about alleged censorship by the Foundation is completely misplaced. The only censorship at play in this instance lies in the pressure exerted by a government attempting to control freedom of expression, which goes against the very purpose and values of our Award. The Carmignac Foundation is not prepared to compromise on the mission of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, nor on the safety of its winners.”

The Foundation says that it was forced to postpone Tavakolian’s project due to purported threats to the photographer’s safety, which it says Tavakolian reported. “The Carmignac Foundation was recently faced with an unprecedented situation whereby the safety of the fifth winner of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, Newsha Tavakolian, was threatened. Ms Tavakolian notified the Foundation of specific and significant risks posed to her own safety, and that of her family, and expressed her intention to tone down and shift the focus of her proposed ‘Burnt Generation’ project that had been selected by the Jury.

“Under these circumstances, the Foundation made the difficult decision to postpone the project rather than accept such a change, which it felt would have distorted the Award’s mission without necessarily guaranteeing the safety of its winner.”

In her statement, Tavakolian disputes the Foundation’s claim that she was threatened, saying that, in an email exchange, “Mr Carmignac and his foundation have chosen to maliciously interpret my attempt to dissuade them from changing the name of my project to a title that I deem unsuitable to the spirit of my work, by declaring that I have pulled out of the award because of pressure by the Iranian Government… I am not in any way under threat at least no more than other journalists who are in Iran… I believe the real reason for the cancellation of my project is the simple fact that Mr Carmignac did not get what he wanted, namely, full control over my work according to his own established idea of how Iran should be represented.

“All my life I have faced censorship and pressures from the mighty and powerful here in Iran. The Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, to use the Foundation’s own description of the prize, is supposed to be “committed to championing the personal and, by definition, minority view”. In my case at least, this has turned into a laughable opposite.”

In defence of its Award the Foundation said: “Since its inception, the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award has supported the independence of photojournalists by giving them the means to report on territories undergoing major socio-political upheaval. The Award is a committed champion of freedom of expression, and was established to provide a better understanding of regions facing complex challenges.”

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