Uses of the Pietà ~ Criticisms of World Press Photo Award
Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen October 15, 2011. Photograph © Samuel Aranda.
This is the image that has been named 2011 photo of the Year by the folks at World Press Photo. No offense to Aranada, who is a talented photographer, but this selection is yet another disappointment. Let's set aside the multiple versions of the Pietà (from, say, Michelangelo to Sam Taylor-Wood) scattered across the history of painting and sculpture in the west.* The winning image is derivative if we focus just on the recent history of photography. Consider these two prominent examples:
his mother at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Svay Rieng, Cambodia.
Family members provide much of the personal care at hospitals in
the developing world. Photograph & Caption © James Nachtwey/VII.
Photograph © W. Eugene Smith.
I've posted about these older images here before. My complaints, however, are not simply to note the "not again" feeling I had when the jury announced its selection. Consider the motto splashed across the bottom of each page on of the WPP web site:
What I really would like to know is how the winning photo advances that mission. There are at least three deep problems that I see.
First, the image, according to remarks by jury members, is meant to call attention to the "Arab Spring" which is admirable enough. Yet this image reduces the public and the political to the intimate and the personal. The Arab Spring is centrally a broad, ongoing struggle to throw off dictatorship. Where does that primary theme go in this image? It is nowhere to be seen or inferred. This is de-politicization by convention. As such it is what, too often, photojournalism seems drawn to do almost irresistibly.
Second, the jurors too note the crucial role that women have played in the Arab Spring. They are right to do so. But they then turn around and select an image that reinforces traditional gender roles and neglects the real active role women have played. Here the woman provides care and solace to a man who has been injured, presumably out in the public world of political conflict. What about all the women who played a direct role in the resistance, not as care givers, but as strategists and organizers and spokespersons? Women across the world have been making trouble all year, not just cleaning up the mess or mourning it.
Finally, how does this image encourage "understanding" of the complex politics of Islam? Not only does it reduce politics to the personal, it does that by assimilating the stereotypical burka-clad woman to deeply Christian iconography. We don't even get universal humanism here. We here in the west are encouraged not to appreciate the realities and particularities of another world. Instead we are encouraged to see others as essentially just like 'we Christians.'
In all three of these ways, Aranda's image - presented as the "photo of the year"** - seem to me to divert understanding, to make it more difficult.
* The folks at Lens/NYTimes rightly remark on the "painterly" nature of the image.
** Here, again, I want to stress that I am not criticizing this particular image or the photographer who made it. I am criticizing the jury for its selection and rationale.