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Photographs from Google Street View: art, journalism or something else altogether?

Is that you falling off your bicycle? Is that your neighbor's van on fire, your friend brawling on the street, or your grandmother lying on the curb after a fall?

Michael Wolf / Laif via World Press Photo

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Google Street View.

A Series of Unfortunate Events is a set of 'virtual' photographs taken from Google Street View, with the details of their locations removed. They earned photographer Michael Wolf an Honorable Mention at the World Press Photo awards earlier this month, sparking a fierce online debate. Did the photos belong to Wolf or to Google? Had he 'created' the pictures at all? And how do they fit in to the history of photojournalism?

Michael Wolf / Laif via World Press Photo

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Google Street View.

Wolf himself, in an interview with the British Journal of Photography, expressed surprise at the award.

"I think it's absolutely astounding," he says. "I won First Prize twice in the competition in 2005 and last year, but this honorable mention is worth hundred times more to me because it's such a conceptual leap for the World Press jury to award a prize to someone that photographs virtually. It's mind-blowing."

"I use a tripod and mount the camera, photographing a virtual reality that I see on the screen. It's a real file that I have, I'm not taking a screenshot. I move the camera forward and backward in order to make an exact crop, and that's what makes it my picture. It doesn't belong to Google, because I'm interpreting Google; I'm appropriating Google. If you look at the history of art, there's a long history of appropriation."

Michael Wolf / Laif via World Press Photo

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Google Street View.

Ruth Eichhorn, Director of Photography at GEO, was a member of the jury that awarded the prize. I asked her to respond to the controversy surrounding the pictures.

"Photojournalism today is definitely what photojournalism was 50 years ago: A situation interpreted into a meaningful image", she said.
 
"But something virtual has entered our visual world that we could not even have imagined 10 years ago. Hence, our world has changed in a revolutionary way. You can write about it and you can look at it on your computer, but how to document it with the means of photography? This is, in my opinion documentary photography and this work is smart and creative."
 
"What Michael Wolf did is use photography to chronicle a significant event."

Michael Wolf / Laif via World Press Photo

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Google Street View.

She continued: "The work was recognized in the category 'Contemporary Issues' and not in the category 'Daily Life'. The Contemporary Issue is that Google scans our world and we cannot hide from it. We are not part of an anonymous mass anymore, we are identifiable."
 
"I checked Google Street View immediately when it was available for my street. [My first reaction was] Relief! I was not slipping down the steps of my front door when the Google car drove by. Do I want to be the laughing stock of my friends and neighbours? No, I don't. The poor people in Wolf's images are identifiable, at least to people who know them. Although Google claims nobody is. And who knows what is next? Live streaming? How will this effect our future?"
 
"Pointing out upcoming problems: that is also what journalism is about."

Michael Wolf / Laif via World Press Photo

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Google Street View.

You can read further debate about the photographs at dvafoto here and here, and at greg.org here. Please tell us what you think in the comments section below.