Italian photojournalist Giovanni Troilo recently won first prize in the prestigious World Press Photo contest, in the Contemporary Issues category, for his bleak photo essay entitled The Dark Heart of Europe. His photographs focus on Charleroi, a town in Belgium that has suffered high unemployment, poverty and crime rates in recent decades. Troilo portrays Charleroi as a depressing hell on Earth; an industrial wasteland whose citizens, armed to the teeth, live in fear of the police of each other. He presents shadowy images of depression, psychiatric asylums, policemen, guns, a woman in a cage.

The photos themselves are interesting enough; yet some of the phrases he uses to describe Charleroi raise alarm bells. He speaks of “increasing immigration,” Charleroi being “[symbolic] by itself the whole of Europe,” characterised by a “lack of a shared identity,” where one can see “ethnic groups confronting and challenging each other in street fights.” “National pride is weak,” he clams, and asks: “Does it make any sense to stay together when the initial mission has almost failed? Will it be possible to have another chance? This is the question for Europe, this is the question for Charleroi, the dark heart of Europe.”

Now accusations have surfaced that Charleroi staged many of the photos in his winning series - and the accusations come from none other than Paul Magnette, the mayor of Charleroi. Of course, one might say that Magnette has a vested interest in trying to portray Charleroi in a more positive light, but he makes some compelling points, noting that Troilo had his cousin pose in one of the photos, and that one of the apparent recluses trying to escape violence is in fact a jovial, well-known personality in Charleroi.

“[T]o hide some perspectives with unverified information and to distort and twist reality by staging, it is anything but photojournalism,” wrote Magnette. There must be something in these accusations, because Troilo has quietly edited the captions to many of these photos on his personal website, noting that a woman he photographed in a mental asylum was a family friend, admitting that his cousin posed for a staged photograph, and down-playing some of his claims (e.g. rising crime) about Charleroi.

It seems that Troilo has gone about distorting reality, in a way which - as Magnette points out - discriminates against the city of Charleroi and its people, and does a disservice to the photojournalistic profession. This controversy comes after the World Press Photo awards were already tainted by the disqualification of more than 20% of its finalists, for post-processing manipulations deemed to be unacceptable.