10 February 2012

Uses of the Pietà ~ Criticisms of World Press Photo Award

A woman holding a wounded relative during protests against president
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:

A boy experiencing severe pain from TB meningitis is comforted by
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.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath (Minamata, 1972).
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:

We exist to inspire understanding of the world through quality photojournalism.

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.

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Blogger Tom White said...

I've not been able to get this photograph out of my head since I first saw it in print last year. For me, it holds a lot more power than many other single images I could pick to represent the events of the so called Arab spring.

10 February, 2012 21:07  
Blogger bastinptc said...

If you haven't seen it already, there's a lengthy discussion on Flak Photo Network's page on Facebook.

11 February, 2012 02:48  
Blogger Ingrid C said...

I think the reason that Tom White was struck by the selected piece for 2011 is that we in the 'West' imbibe deeply Christian themes, as recycled iconography such as the Pieta recur, even in offshoots of pop culture. Therefore, it is suggested that perhaps the World Press Organisation has Eurocentric standards. This may be so, but to have chosen a photograph from the frontline of the Arab Spring is in itself a step forward in intercultural dialogue. As for the Pieta image itself, have women not been depoliticised in the ur-text which underwrites such images, no matter the context?
- Ingrid Casey

11 February, 2012 10:44  
Blogger anton said...

The resemblance to something iconic such as the Pieta is a great part of what makes this image resonate, as it does the other images you cite. The Pieta itself resonates because it touches the motherly instinct and the fragility of man - all eternal themes. It will always resonate because it is within all of us.

Regarding your other arguments, this is one aspect of a situation. It tells one story, of course there are more but no one expects it all to be told in one image.

Thanks for your time and insight

11 February, 2012 11:44  
Blogger John Edwin Mason said...

Jim's points are right on target, but I want to follow Ingrid's comments about WPPs "Eurocentric standards."

Well, yes, they are awfully Eurocentric. And for a simple reason. The WPP's judges are overwhelming white Western Europeans or North Americans.

This particular photo won, to a large degree, precisely because its invocation of Christian imagery evoked a strong emotional response among the jurors. This symbolism is so deeply embedded in our culture that all westerners -- Christian, post-Christian, Jewish, and none of the above -- are going to respond to it. A jury composed primarily of non-Western judges would almost certainly have selected a different Photo of the Year.

Of course, the WPP is free to select any jurors that it pleases. But it should stop pretending that their collective wisdom represent some sort of universal standard of photographic excellence.

In a world where the economic, political, and cultural center-of-gravity is rapidly shifting away from the West, the WPP's insistence on using the word "World" to describe itself is looking decidedly provincial.

11 February, 2012 15:03  
Blogger Farrukh Naeem said...

Hi Jim,

This is possibly one of the best reserached blog posts on the World Press Photo and the paralells it seems to draw to Biblical imagery.

I also admire the quality of comments (and obviously the wisdom of positive moderation and anti-boorishness).

I have cited your post and its strengths of my blog, one of the first advertising and journalism blogs from the Middle East in English.

You are welcome to visit and see a Middle Eastern take on the image here:

11 February, 2012 17:33  
Blogger ninaberman said...

I very much respect the comments on this blog. As a WPP jury member this year, I'd be curious to know which image the blog's author, or any other commentators would have preferred and why.

12 February, 2012 15:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


You mean which of the 101,254 images that were submitted? (That figure comes from the WPP press release.) In all due respect, I think this is an ill-considered attempt to shift the burden of argument. Nothing I said suggests that the jury task is not enormous. But neither was I party to that enterprise. Nor were any of the commenters here. That said, Tom White offers an example in his opening comment above. That image, which I too find quite powerful, appeared along side of Aranda's in the NY TIMES 'year in photos' spread. It suffers from none of the problems I point out in the post.

I laid out what seem to me (despite disagreements from others) seem like quite reasonable qualms about the jury's selection. I'd love to hear your response to those qualms.


12 February, 2012 15:45  
Blogger ninaberman said...

Hi Jim
The image Tom points out is strong, but I never saw it in the jury which could mean lots of things...it was eliminated early or never entered. Still, doesn't it also suffer from taking the public and political and making it personal and intimate? Just to be clear, when I asked what you and your readers might have preferred, I was not attempting to "shift the burden of argument." I'm not here to argue or defend my selection, but to learn. I supported and appreciated the winning image because it recognized the consequences suffered by thousands of people who tried to stand up for self-determination. This consequence and sacrifice has not been duly noted, in my opinion. It does it in a way that for me is not cliched, but unconventional in how it depicts Islamic women. In the western press, women in veils are rarely seen as human, rather they are photographed as compositional elements. The woman in Aranda's picture is immensely powerful. She is a survivor and fighter. This is what I get from it. You can see it in how she sits, in her hands. She holds the power in the frame. That it was taken in Yemen and not Egypt or LIbya, made it even more important, as there have been few images out of Yemen, and the people there were brutally, repeatedly attacked, hunted by snipers. As for turning everyone into some Christian version of ourselves, I disagree that this is the intention or effect of the image. Human beings hold each other in universal ways regardless of where they live or what they believe and have been doing so long before the Pieta. One of our problems in the west, is we refuse to acknowledge that those in the Islamic world, grieve, suffer, struggle, and sacrifice with equal weight. Alternatively, we could have chosen images of rebels setting off rockets in Libya, or throwing rocks in Cairo, some strong images there for sure, but also fraught with cliches. You mention that the image denies the more active role played by women, (I disagree) but in the 2nd round, we only saw two other images of women, both from Cairo, and they didn't even come close to being winning frames. Perhaps this has more to do with what the photographers (mainly male) find interesting, then a jury's failure.

I hope this sheds some light on my thinking. Thanks for the blog, it's really terrific and enlightening.


12 February, 2012 22:18  
Blogger Zari Naima said...

Some comments I came across in a different discussion are completely focused on the fact that the woman is clad in a burqa, implying that she can not be considered a normal human being.
Therefore, what really stood out for me in this image is it seemed to make that which is different/strange -(muslims,burqa clad women)seem more familiar - (we all suffer). Which makes it abit too predictable in my opinion and also reinforces that these images are made for a western audience.

While I agree Nina, there are universal expressions of emotion, these are still mediated by the context and cultures we live in - thus the Christian iconography

"Yet this image reduces the public and the political to the intimate and the personal".

But, the personal is political. the body in of itself is political. I don't see why images of struggle should be limited in scope. I would think resistance can manifest in various ways - the protestor on the street, as well as the injured.

lastly, while the image does reinforce traditional gender roles, I'm curious as to why you would consider women being caregivers as not playing a real active role in the resistance. Why should we assume that providing care and solace is less than being out on the street as an organizer, strategizer and spokesperson? Cleaning up the mess takes incredible strength, especially because no one really wants to do it - the less glamorous side of struggle.

What I found peculiar/significant is the gloves. If this was a relative, why would she have gloves on? Any take on that Jim?

13 February, 2012 13:04  
Blogger Farrukh Naeem said...

I like the way the comments are evolving. Specially like what Zari Naima has said:

"Why should we assume that providing care and solace is less than being out on the street as an organizer, strategizer and spokesperson? Cleaning up the mess takes incredible strength, especially because no one really wants to do it - the less glamorous side of struggle."

Having spent a lot of time in critical care, I can completely agree with that angle.

The gloves, to me, are not the type that one would wear to hide her hands but more like the ones one would wear when dressing wounds, handling medical equipment, etc.

They seem to have blood/tincture on them.

Anyone taking care of loved one at home would instantly recoognise these gloves.

13 February, 2012 15:16  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


13 February, 2012 21:31  
Blogger Tom White said...

You may be interested in this BBC program which includes an interview with Fatima, the mother of Zayed, who also adds a few comments. http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/outlook

For the record, I personally think Aranda's photo is really strong. Andrea Bruce's photo (the link for which was in my first comment) is just one that I've been unable to shift from the forefront of my mind whenever I think of all the images I've seen this past year. It's a shame that it never got in the competition. Maybe it was never submitted. In any case, I'm no WPP judge. Just my humble opinion!

16 February, 2012 00:55  

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