Sunday, 4 December 2011

World Press Photo 2011

For over 55 years the competition has been showcasing the best images from around the world

You needn’t have been to the World Press Photo exhibition to see Jodi Bieber’s photo of Bibi Aisha, the Afghan woman whose husband cut off her ears and nose after she left him. The photo has garnered international acclaim and is this year’s winner. The brutality of the disfigurement is shocking. However, the photo’s power is derived from the way Aisha is portrayed- not as a victim, slumped on the ground crying, but as a survivor, seated in a dignified manner, posing for the camera. The photograph has become one of the most notable pictures of the exhibition. However, there are others that deserve just as much recognition.

Southern Sudan Challenges

For me, the stand-out photograph was by Guillem Valle, a Spanish photographer, who captured a Dinka man in front of his house in Akkach, South Sudan. Valle says the man, a Dinka elder, has a “hieratic face” and by centring the man in the middle of photo, with the lines of the house’s roof seeming to form a focal point at the man’s head, Valle certainly manages to accentuate the sense of authority and majesty about him. This photo can be delineated into lines – the lines on the man’s crisp shirt seem to give him more stature, making him look more imposing, while the use of black and white photography draws attention to his striking cheekbones. This is a truly arresting photo – combining the photographer’s skills with the man’s stoicism.

Fair Trade

Another favourite was Kenneth O’Halloran’s photographs of Irish traveller fairs. Considering the British public’s familiarity with traveller life through programmes like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, it is hard to imagine what people around the world would make of these photos. The young girl, posed in a red outfit, hands on hips with a defiant pout, is simultaneously scary and hilarious. Similarly, the three teenage girls posing, breasts overflowing, caked in what appears to be fake tan, seem to be a parody of beauty.

I’m not often captivated by sports photography, but the World Press Photo provides an abundance of beautifully shot scenes that capture the thrill, excitement and drama of physical exertion. Steve Christo’s photograph of Australian swimmers in the Cole Classic race at Manly Beach could be mistaken for being boats, fish, tadpoles or sperm, swimming for their prize. The swimmers seem so small and insignificant in the ocean, yet it's a scene of frantic activity – you can easily imagine the splash and dash for the finish line.

At a tent theater near you

For a sense of the grasp that cinema has on Indians, check out Amit Madheshiya’s ‘At a tent theater near you’. It features a montage of the audience at a travelling cinema. All seem to be captivated by the action on screen – there’s the woman with her hands over her mouth, the nonchalant man ready to light his cigarette. We get a tentative glimpse of the film’s action through the reflection from an old man’s glasses, yet we never know about the film they are watching. The audience is composed of very different characters yet they are all drawn together for a few hours of escapism.

The Last Colony

Andrew McConnell’s photo of Josephine Mpongo in the Congo is inspiring. During the day she sells eggs in the market, but by night she is a musician, playing the cello as part of the Orchestre Symphoniqye Kimbanguiste, Central Africa’s only symphony containing mostly self-taught amateurs. In the photo, Mpongo is lost in her own world, separated from the bustle of the market by the green wall and by her music. It’s a beautiful shot, capturing someone lost in their art, while the world around them carries on chaotically.

About half of the World Press Photo contains distressing and graphic images – of war, natural disasters, violence and disease – and it makes for uncomfortable viewing. The nature of the some of photos – like a decapitated head in Mexico – are distressing because they are gruesome. Others can be uncomfortable to view because many of the photos capture people at their worst state in their lives, like after the earthquake in Haiti, when they would not want to be photographed, and as an audience you feel like a voyeur, viewing their pain and hardship like you view a piece of art, only to forget about it when you get home. The ethics of photojournalism can occupy a shadowy territory. By capturing a scene of intense suffering you may draw international attention to an area or situation that would otherwise be ignored, but you also turn people into victims and subjects, denying many of them privacy and dignity.

Julie with baby

One of the photos that really stood out from the ‘graphic’ section of the exhibition was the montage by Darcy Padilla, entitled 'The Julie Project'. For 18 years the photographer documents the life of Julie, an 18-year-old HIV positive woman, with a newborn child and a history of drug abuse. The first photo shows Julie with her daughter Rachel, aged 3 months in the lobby of a hotel. She looks tired and weary, displaying no interaction with her baby, and looking like she is completely clueless about what to do with it. As the montage and years continue, Julie looks more withered and emaciated, due to drugs, poverty and the effects of having more children. Padilla is there at the most intimate moments of Julie’s life – lying in bed with her HIV positive boyfriend Jason and at the birth of her baby Elyssa, as she is delivered. As her AIDS related conditions develops, Julie becomes weaker. The most harrowing photo is of her lying naked on a couch, ‘reaching out for someone who isn’t there’. In the last photo, Jason holds Julie for the last time before she dies. Although it feels intrusive watching this deterioration in a once beautiful woman, it is clear that Padilla has formed a strong relationship with Tracey, showing moments of tenderness, especially in her relationship with Jason, as well as disruption.

The World Press Photo highlights the importance of photojournalism – its ability to shock, entertain and inform us. It requires real skill and dedication to be a photojournalist, working in uncertain and volatile conditions. Last month, CNN announced that photojournalists would be sacked as part of efficiency savings. Jack Womack, the organisation’s senior vice president of domestic news operations justified this by saying that the rise of citizen journalism and photos provided by social media, meant that it was more cost-effective to use them rather than photojournalists.

It’s true that citizen journalism does produce spectacular photography and this has been recognised in the World Press Photo. One of the Chilean miners who was stuck along with 32 other miners was handed a camera and documented his attempt to keep fit and create some semblance of normality while stuck underground.

However, citizen-produced photos will never produce anything as powerful as that produced by photojournalists, who have been trained to use a camera and who are more aware of the ethics involved in covering these situations. It’s a travesty to photographers who have died or been injured while documenting the world (like Tim Hetherington this year) that executives feel their work can be replicated by untrained sources.