15 March 2012

Criticisms of the World Press Photo Award ... A 'For Instance' or Two

A woman holding her wounded son in her arms, inside a mosque
used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President
Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen on 15 October 2011.
Photograph © Samuel Aranda/Corbis.

Last month I posted this critical assessment of the image above, for which Samuel Aranda won the 2011 World Press Photo award for 'photo of the year.' Pretty much every year I take the award announcement as an excuse to argue about photography. That is not because, in any given case, I want to question the photographer's motives or talent. Mostly, I pursue my own preoccupation which is with questions of pragmatics - of how images are used, by whom and for what purpose. I am more interested in photography than in photographs.

My complaints were that the Aranda's image was derivative in straight photographic terms (I offered a couple of examples) and, more importantly, that it (1) depoliticized the uprisings across the Islamic world, (2) reinforced traditional gender roles, and (3) assimilated Islamic politics to a distinctly Christian iconographic tradition. In the comment thread I had a frank exchange with Nina Berman, who had served on the Selection Jury. (I will say that I really appreciate Nina's intervention - straightforward and smart without being defensive.) Nina did a good job of shifting the burden of discussion - essentially asking the critics (including, but not just, me) to suggest a more appropriate image. In particular, Nina challenged critics to suggest images that, while strong photographically, also both underscored the role of women in the protests and avoided clichés of gesticulating/screaming/rock throwing demonstrators. Fair enough. This post is an overdue attempt to take up Nina's challenge. I hope simply to provide a somewhat better idea of the sorts of images that avoid the problems I find in Aranda's winning photograph.

Another commenter - Tom White - had suggested this image by Andrea Bruce which appeared (among other places) in The New York Times.

The body of Ahmed Fahran, 30, cleansed before burial;
killed by security forces in Sitra, Bahrain on March 15.
Photo © Andrea Bruce.

And while I do think it meets Nina's first criterion, it leaves women out of the picture (pun intended) altogether. (Nina pointed out that this image was not in the pool the jury was asked to consider, suggesting that if it had been nominated, it was eliminated in a earlier round of assessing.) In any case, Bruce's photograph was included among 30+ images of the 'Arab Spring' in the 'year in pictures' wrap-up published here at The New York Times. That latter threshold seemed to offer a rough proxy for 'quality'; and I found these two images in the same selection.

Anti-government protesters in Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain,
on Feb. 20. The opposition wanted the country, an absolute
monarchy, to make the transition to an elected government.
Photograph © Lynsey Addario.

Young Egyptians posted videos online on Feb. 7 that they had
recorded earlier in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The group collected
testimonies of the protesters and published them on social
networking sites. Photograph © Ed Ou.

I think both of these images are powerful. Are they stronger in photographic terms than Aranda's? Maybe. Perhaps not. But both avoid the aspects of Aranda's image that I thought (and still think) are quite off-putting. Both centrally include women and both focus on the politics not the aftermath. Both avoid the Christian theme. Still, are they stronger in photographic terms?

Instead of sifting through thousands of images and arguing about whether this or that had greater photographic merit, I thought it might be more useful to simply contrast Aranda's image with a previous 'photo of the year' winner:

Women shouting from a rooftop in protest at the presidential
election results in Tehran, Iran, June 24, 2009.
Photograph © AP Photo/Pietro Masturzo.

I posted, almost without comment, when this image by Pietro Masturzo won the 'photo of the year' for 2009. Both then and now it recalls these very early posts I made on the politics of space in the Middle East revealed in various photographs of roof tops. In any case, here again we have an image that focuses on the particularities of oppositional politics in an Islamic (not Arab) country. And, again, we have one that avoids not just the cliché's that rightly worry Nina, but the substantive problems that bothered me.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

That photograph by Andrea Bruce is certainly not the strongest compositionally (nor was the winner), but it is a revealing breath of fresh air that packs an emotional wallop the winner only hints at.

17 March, 2012 13:54  

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