A woman holds 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. © Samuel Aranda 2011. All rights reserved.
Photo © Samuel Aranda 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Who’d be a World Press Photo winner? Or even a juror? In recent times it’s become something of a tradition to attack both the winning photo and the contest: this year did not disappoint.

Martijn Kleppe has an excellent and growing collection of links to various articles on this year’s WPP results; two that have gained considerable attention are hit pieces by Joerg Colberg at Conscientious, and James Johnson at Politics, Theory & Photography. It’s worth noting that neither Colberg nor Johnson are press photographers: the former is an astrophysicist, fine art photography curator and writer, the latter a professor of political theory at the University of Rochester. Nor does either claim any special knowledge of Islam and the Arab world. So while Colberg and Johnson are entitled to their opinions, they don’t appear to possess any specialist skills or insights that render those opinions particularly valuable.

The heart of their objections is the apparent resemblance of Samuel Aranda’s winning photo to the Christian imagery of the Pietà, most famously by Michelangelo. Almost inevitably, this resemblance has led some to claim that Aranda faked the photo: the most extreme version of this is the theory that the whole thing was a put-up job by American imperialists.

Fortunately neither Colberg nor Johnson go quite that far. Rather, they argue that it was wrong to award a photograph that appears to reference – even inadvertently – Christian iconography; that in doing so WPP reveals its own inherent bias; and that the award also serves to obscure the political background to the image. Here’s a taste:

Joerg Colberg:

“If you have followed the news over the past decade even just tangentially, you might realize that using a visual language that could not be more Christian to depict an event in a Muslim country might pose a problem.”

James Johnson:

“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.’ Aranda’s image – presented as the ‘photo of the year’ – seem to me to divert understanding, to make it more difficult.”

The problem with these criticisms and others is that they’re not really so much about Aranda’s photo as the authors’ own underlying prejudices and obsessions. But this year there was a twist to the criticisms. No sooner had Western political theorists and academics finished complaining about the blinkered Western nature of World Press Photo than another group of commentators emerged: people from the actual country where the photo has been taken, and most crucially, the two people in the photo. And those people all offer a rather different assessment of both the photo and the jury’s decision:

Nadia Abdulla, Yemeni photographer:

“We feel proud of this photo because it is very important for the world to have a new impression of Yemen. The foreign media has been presenting Yemenis as terrorists but this is the first time Yemen’s beautiful and expressive side has been shown.”

Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni blogger:

“It sums up what the Yemeni nation and the rest of Arab [and non-Arab] revolutionary nations have gone through in pursuit of democracy and freedom.”

Zayed Al-Qawas, the 18 year old man in the photo, who had been tear-gassed by government forces:

“It is a real support to the revolution. It demonstrates that Yemenis are not extremists. The picture explains everything. The picture really explains the love of the mother, and the wounded son, and what happened on that day in Yemen.”

Fatima Al-Qawas, Zayed’s mother, seen holding him in the photo:

“It makes me very happy to see this picture, to see also that it has won such a prestigious award. It makes me happy and very proud: proud for being a woman, proud for being a mother, and also for being a Yemeni woman. I’m very proud that this photo is going around the world and many people have seen it and will continue seeing it. And especially it makes me even happier because it’s Western people who have chosen that picture for the award.”

So what was the problem with the photo again?

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10 Responses to “Why The Critics Of The World Press Photo Muslim Pietà Are Wrong – By The People Who Know Best”

  1. Theory is important in photojournalism, as in any kind of journalism. But I’ve watched the debate around this prize and photograph and felt so detached from it…so much of it feels so pointless. For me the photograph works. Photography is a subjective medium and there will always be discussion about which image is stronger but the pieta debate, especially, feels like sheer naval gazing to me. And imho the best way to make an audience care about politics is to reveal it through the personal. Criticism for criticism’s sake..

  2. Ciara is absolutely right. It’s as if some critics (in this particular case) have nothing better to do than see things in a photograph that aren’t there…and convince us that there is.

    In my view, this photograph won because of many reasons…none of them related to the Pieta….and i say as much:


  3. My photo history class and I talked about Aranda’s photo for about a half hour, the other day. The students liked it a lot, and, for them, its resonance with the Pieta and iconic photos by W. Eugene Smith and James Nachtwey strengthened it, rather than diminishing it. I have to agree — it’s a powerful photo.

    But my question to the class was slightly different from the one that you have Coleberg and Johnson asking. I want to ask what this photo tells us about World Press Photo and its jury.

    It seems to me that the selection of this image as WPP Photo of the Year tells us (or, perhaps, reminds us) that WPP reflects western values, interests, and aesthetics. The over-whelming majority of the jurors come from Western Europe and North America. No matter what their religious beliefs, if any, they’re products of a culture in which the Pieta has a special place. I’m convinced, but can’t of course prove, that the photo won in large part because of its deep resonance with Christian imagery.

    I strongly doubt that that a jury that reflected the makeup of the world photographic community, a jury whose members were overwhelmingly from the non-Christian (and non-post-Christian!) world, would have picked this image as Photo of the Year.

    All of this is more of a comment than a criticism. As I’ve said — speaking as a westerner who has seen and been moved by his share of Christian iconography — the photo itself is powerful.

    I do wish that WPP would either stop pretending that it represents the world (and, as Coleberg suggested, change its name to Western Press Photo) or transform its jury into one that represents the photo community as a whole. That would mean a majority of jurors from outside of Europe and North America — and wouldn’t that be wonderful.

  4. Paul Paul says:

    To put it another way could you say it has a deep resonance with western art rather than Christian imagery?

  5. Jesse Marinoff Reyes Jesse Marinoff Reyes says:

    I disagree, especially with Johnson, in that precisely because the image echoes the pieta strengthens the viewer’s impression of it and increases its universality, not diminishes it or makes it somehow more Western.

    The Islamic World has been stereotyped negatively in the years since 9-11 to a ridiculous degree. For the viewer to see an echo of the pieta is to see what makes the pieta an important image: the representation of a mother cradling her adult child, protectively, mournfully—the horror of a parent who, in the case of Mary, must bury that child. Aranda’s image differs only in that the (adult) child had been injured and not killed, but the “universal humanism” Johnson says is lacking couldn’t be more apparent.

    You see the humanity of the individuals in the photo, not the labels we’ve placed on their culture or religion. If the pieta allows an analogy for that humanism, then so be it. “Prick me, do I not bleed?”

  6. Good detective work to share a deeper perspective from the source, Jeremy. I showed my wife the photo. She is not a photographer but a mother. And, while not religious, she is Canadian and has a Catholic upbringing. For what it’s worth, rather than making a Mary-Jesues-western-art connection, she identified the photograph as capturing a natural mother-son response to tragedy and/or pain. This photo is about humanity. As they say: art imitates life.

  7. John John says:

    The political-theory commentators on this photo are off the mark, and perhaps ‘too smart by half’. The point very, very simply is that this is a stupendously brilliant photo. It may, upon reflection, remind one of the Pieta; but what it says, with shattering clarity and precision, is: this is the face of war. I think that the POTY jury responded to this.In his own way, the boy in the photo said the same thing–mother, and war. Were jurors influenced by Western prejudices? I doubt it–this seems to be retrospective. The photo, simply, is an icon, and I believe the POTY jury nailed it. I have been shooting for fifty years, and this is an image that will remain with me for my lifetime.

  8. Excellent points above by the previous three posters. Just to add the element that adds a huge ironic twist to this picture, and which is for me a detail that reinforces its power: the gloves. Anyone who has used these ‘professionally’ in the touching of people, will know the sense of isolation they bring. The mother in this photo is distanced from her son by the latex – touch but no feeling. This is an image with layer upon layer upon layer of meaning, but all founded on one thing, and it’s not christianity, it’s common humanity.

  9. […] I’ve been reading quite a lot of criticism of the WPP winning image by Samuel Aranda on various pages around the web, and you can read an interesting summary of the controversy it has aroused from Jeremy Nicholl on his ‘The Russion Photos Blog’ in his Why The Critics Of The World Press Photo Muslim Pietà Are Wrong – By The People Who Know Best. […]

  10. […] Colberg’s article made some excellent points, and that’s where I sort tuned out until Jeremy Nicholl made a rather strange argument about how the critics are wrong because they’re not press photographers or experts on the […]

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  12. It would appear that the naming is what has been contested, revealing a western-centric focus that, while attempting to assimilate the image into the language of art appreciation, unnecessarily adds an occluding layer making the remarkable photo harder to access. Your article did a fine job of putting this excellent photo back at the center, while somehow missing this point: labels matter. Names matter.

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  14. […] long as we don’t start to ask the right questions, titles like Jeremy Nicholl’s  ’Why the Critics of the World Press Photo Muslim Pieta are Wrong – By The People Who […]

  15. […] I found it especially interesting today to read this blog post which talks about the very same issue. The author here defends the photo against those who […]

  16. vetkoshi vetkoshi says:

    Love, Sadness, Pain and the passion of the womb goes beyond religion. Atheists mothers and fathers also cry.
    I hope the human race will outdo animals in compassion. A duck takes care of a another bird as carefully as its own duckling

  17. […] long as we don’t start to ask the right questions, titles like Jeremy Nicholl’s  ’Why the Critics of the World Press Photo Muslim Pieta are Wrong – By The People Who […]

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