11 February 2011

Category Mistake at World Press Photo Awards ~ Top Prize Given Not for Photojournalism But for Propaganda

'This could become one of those pictures - and we have maybe just ten in our lifetime - where if somebody says "you know, that picture of a girl...", you know exactly which one they're talking about.' ~ Jury chair David Burnett

'It's an incredibly strong image. It sends out an enormously powerful message to the world, about the 50% of the population that are women, so many of whom still live in miserable conditions, suffering violence. It is strong because the woman looks so dignified, iconic.' ~ Juror Ruth Eichhorn

'It's a terrific picture, a different picture, a frightening picture. It's so much about not just this particular woman, but the state of women in the world.'~ Juror Vince Aletti

'Part of what the World Press Photo contest does is to take pictures to a wider audience, an audience that is going to ask why? And this photo makes people ask "What on earth...?" "What's going on...?" "What has happened...?" For me, this was the picture that asked the most important questions.'~ Juror Aidan Sullivan

The jury decision is in and this picture by Jodi Bieber won the main prize - the World Press Photo of the Year, 2010 - at the World Press Photo awards. You can find the jury member's rationalizations I have lifted above here. The category mistake is that, perhaps despite the photographer's intention*, this image was an integral part of a TIME Magazine propaganda piece last summer. I have defended that claim here repeatedly and will not reiterate my view. What I find especially disturbing here is that the jurors are aiding and abetting the propaganda campaign by de-contextualizing Bieber's photo, presenting it as an iconic representation of the plight of women across the globe. In fact, it was deployed to much different ends, namely in an attempt to shore up support for a brutal decade old war. None of the jurors quoted on the World Press Photo page so much as mention the war or its costs. Shame.

Among the observations that animate my preoccupation with photography is this one from David Levi Strauss: "The first question must always be: Who is using this photograph, and to what end?" That is a question the World Press Photo jury either neglected to ask or asked and then set aside. I am unsure which possibility is worse.
* Here I am being generous. On the front page Bieber's web site this evening you will find not the simple image but the TIME cover.

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Blogger Cyranos DeMet said...

The brutality of the Taliban is well known, well documented. I was hearing horror stories from the international students well before 9/11. The war in Afghanistan is righteous, it needs to be won old school fashion: if need be scorch the earth and leave no stone standing in Afghanistan or Pakistan, start an army north out of India as well, but hunt the Taliban to utter and total extinction. Cheaper in the long run to truck the refugees out and feed them somewhere else than allow the cancer of the Taliban to continue to grow. They didn't need the picture of the pretty girl brutalized to convince me.

That said, that photo should never be "reassigned" to a generic cause such as simplistic feminism that sees the world through gender biased lenses when there are so many genuine and serious threats to be dealt with. Such images need to remain solidly tagged to the villians that produced the brutality, not become a brutality looking for a villian.

12 February, 2011 02:41  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Perhaps we shouldn't condemn the photo itself because of how it was initially (mis)used. But now it has that baggage, fair or unfair to the image itself- not to mention the subject. Certainly, mention should have been made of the controversy- and the time to set it right was during the judging and awarding.

13 February, 2011 21:59  
Blogger Unknown said...

No image has a single meaning, and it's a mistake to suggest a permanent monolithic significance to Jodi's image just because of Time's use of the picture. Time's use was prominent in 2010 and as the image evolves in our cultural awareness this prominence will fade. For example, this very article recontextualizes the image in an anti-war context, giving it a new and contradictory meaning. "Who is using this photograph and to what end?" In this instance it's Jim Johnson subverting the original use. Neither do I see evidence that the jury ignored alternate meanings of the image. If anything, Jim is at risk of being seen to impose a meaning of his choice on the image, which will itself dissolve as the picture's significance morphs over the coming years.
Stephen Mayes

15 February, 2011 09:33  
Blogger nikos efstratiou said...

Dear Jim,

I like the way you have deconstructed the award winning picture of this year's World Press Photo Award. The only thing I might disagree with is that for me the World Press Photo (W.P.P) jury have neither neglected to ask David Levi Strauss' question not asked it at the first place and then put it aside. The question is more rhetorical in my opinion, as the W.P.P. jury this year used this photo as world propaganda, as you mention in you title. Unfortunately, the jury of the award has been doing so in the last few years. This portrait does not show anything 'new' to its audience, the picture has no 'punctum'. The jury just wanted to repeat last year's Time headline 'What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan'. Moreover, and I hope I do not make any wild reading here, in our collective consciousness we have Steve McCurry's 'Afghan Girl' picture. The aesthetics of Bieber's image are very similar (if not the same), but not the rhetoric. The rhetoric is documentary propaganda at its best. By this I do not mean what Bieber's initial intention was, but rather how the image was used, circulated and distributed and in which context.

15 February, 2011 11:47  
Blogger snafubar said...

Propaganda is as much in the perspective of the observer as it is in the intent of the publisher. To say that there is some bias in publishing this photo because it enables or justifies any effort toward war in Afghanistan (which I am against) should not - how can it? - erase what is reality. Should this woman indeed keep her face hidden for the rest of her life precisely because she represents the brutality of Afghan tribalism, politics, and religion? Some photos are what they are, because they exist. To what ends those photos are used may be in dispute or held in contempt, but in the end this photo represents the subject of the shot itself. To claim she must not be shown for what she represents is as much propaganda as is any publicity the photo gathers, and for exactly the same reasons even if the goals are directly in opposition to one another.

13 March, 2012 07:15  

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