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:
“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.”
“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?
The Shop Till You Drop Award [sponsored by Adobe]
The Robotog Award For Photography And The Law
The Uncle Bob Award For Wedding Photography
The Susan Sontag Award For Writing On Photography
Photo Caption Of The Year
The Enron Award For Business Management
Quote Of The Year
Photo Product Of The Year
The Remix Award For Plagiarism
Grand Prix de Folie Photographie
The most talked about photo from last week – and indeed for some time – was Richard Lam’s riot kiss in Vancouver. Naturally many wannabe image experts made fools of themselves by instantly branding the picture a fake. Esquire went to the opposite extreme, declaring it not just the best photo of the night, but “maybe of all time”. Ten reasons why they’re wrong:
1. Digital Photography Review Expert Analysis™ identifies multiple technical failures: burned-out highlights, incorrect white balance and poor composition.
2. The photographer neglected to use the World Press Photo recommended formula: convert to b/w, burn down 2 stops, add 100% contrast, run Tunnel Vision™ vignette plug-in, re-crop with 20 degree angle and constrain to wrap.
3. The image clearly fails Alamy’s industry standard quality control: “contains excessive noise, and soft or lacking definition”.
4. Shot by a photographer in his own town, the image fails the photojournalism travel test. Greatest-ever photos are invariably taken far from home, most often in Africa, the Middle East or Haiti. Never in Canada.
5. Not shot on a leicaPhone, the classic camera for all serious reportage.
6. No use of Hipstamatic, HDR or tone mapping: the image relies solely on content and sorely lacks post-processing gimmickry.
7. Not copied from Google Street View.
8. Ignores many of photography’s most basic tenets, including the vital rule of thirds, all of which are freely available on the Internet. Additionally displays shockingly poor bokeh.
9. Fails the flickr content test: image contains no sunsets or kittens.
10. It’s not even the best riot kiss photo ever.
It used to be you won an award and people would say nice things, at least to your face; now it’s an excuse for a mob to take to the Internet and vilify you. In the week since Jodi Bieber’s portrait of Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan woman disfigured by her family – who may or may not have been members of the Taliban – arguments have raged over World Press Photo’s decision to award their premier prize to the image.
Of course there’s always an argument about the WPP winner: what made this different was that it was not the usual “wrong choice” wrangle. Instead the controversy had its roots in Time Magazine’s previous use of the image to support the US military presence in Afghanistan. WPP had judged the image, but Bieber’s critics were focused on the use of that image and her part in its use: as a result discussion rapidly descended into a de facto personal attack on Bieber.
The debate’s current terms of engagement were set in World Press Or Propaganda?, a post by Ben Chesterton at DuckRabbit:
1: Jodi Bieber won the World Press Award for an important and eloquent photograph that has done much to highlight the abuse of women and their resilience in the face of unspeakable barbarism.
2: The photograph that won the World Press was used as propaganda that helps justify the billions of pounds of profit made from war. Bieber is not to blame for this and this should not be a consideration in the jury’s mind.
3: The photograph that won the World Press was used as propaganda that helps justify the billions of pounds of profit made from war. Bieber is complicit in the way the image of Aisha has been (ab)used.
If the answer is 1 then we should all be celebrating the award going to Bieber but if it is 2 or 3 then we should be worried.
Logically the World Press jury would opt for 1 or 2; indeed it’s a reasonable assumption that most well informed people would. What drove the DuckRabbit discussion off the rails was that pretty much everyone went for option 3.
The thinking employed was simple in every respect. Bieber photographed Aisha; Time used the Bieber photo for propagandistic war mongering; therefore Bieber is a warmonger. The clincher, so far as the accusers were concerned, is that Bieber has the Time cover on her website; it didn’t seem to occur to them that it would be a very rare photographer indeed – show of hands anyone? – that made a Time cover and didn’t display it in such a way.
The other elementary fact of life that posters seemed unaware of is that neither Time, nor any other publication, gives freelance photographers the power of veto over cover headlines. You deliver the images and…that’s it. You have no further control over the production process. You may not like that. You may think it’s wrong. But none of that matters: that’s just the way it works. Ironically, at the same time that people were attacking Bieber on DuckRabbit, David Campbell was making this very point with an earlier quote from Bieber herself:
‘What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.’ This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline ‘What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,’ its form was beyond her control.
Bieber – probably sensibly – has remained silent, but eventually photographer Maggie Steber intervened at DuckRabbit with some common-sense home truths. Steber’s cry of witch-hunt was pretty much on the mark, but she could have selected a better target than DuckRabbit. A more appropriate choice might have been Bieber’s chief vilifier Jim Johnson, who describes himself as “a political theorist with neither experience as, nor any real aspiration to be, a photographer.” That’s a useful confession since it at least tells us upfront that when it comes to photojournalism Johnson doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Ignorance however hasn’t prevented Johnson developing something of an obsession with the Bieber/Aisha photo: in the little over 6 months since the Time cover he’s churned out no less than four lengthy blog posts of several thousand words on the subject. Along the way he’s made some interesting discoveries: like if the text accompanying a photograph is changed [see above] then the viewer’s perception of the photograph’s meaning is also changed. Thanks for that Jim: photographers would never have guessed.
Many of the concerns expressed at DuckRabbit were valid, but the subject of people’s ire should have been the Time editors, not the photographer; and using Bieber as target practice to express those concerns was simply cowardly. As for Johnson, on his Facebook page he describes his political views as “extreme and more or less unforgiving”. Just like the Taliban then.
Another World Press Photo contest, another World Press Photo controversy. It’s become a tradition for WPP jury decisions to come under attack within minutes of the awards announcement. Past rows have included the veracity of certain images, a perceived bias toward death and destruction, and the question of whether the contest itself retains any relevance in a rapidly changing media landscape.
But this year the jury raised the controversy bar – or lowered it, depending on one’s point of view – with an Honorable Mention in the Contemporary Issues section to Michael Wolf’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The award, for a series of screenshots from Google Street View, is such a shining example of imperial wardrobe malfunction that it’s tempting to simply point and laugh at the naked jurors. “Unf*cking believable”, “are you joking?” and “I’m putting my money on traffic cameras next year” were among the immediate reactions from photographers.
In an interview with Wolf the British Journal of Photography asked: “is Google Street View photojournalism?” The answer is so obvious that the question is barely worth putting: entirely lacking even the basic who, what, where, when or why, the series comprehensively fails every journalistic standard. And despite Wolf’s insistence that the images are not screenshots but real photographs, he is only correct in the most banal and literal sense: to paraphrase Cartier-Bresson, they are simply what comes out of a camera when a camera works.
None of which makes ASOUE worthless. Viewed as art the series may be successful, although arguably they would be more so if Wolf had staged photographs and then passed them off as genuine Google Street View images. It’s notable that Wolf has not regarded himself as a photojournalist for some years now, and supporters of the jury decision tend to take the world of art, rather than journalism, as their reference point in the debate.
So what were the images doing in a photojournalism contest? Wolf describes his decision to enter the set as a provocation; a better interpretation would be that he was having a laugh. To be effective such provocations need a punter mug enough to take the bait, and the WPP jury duly obliged. A cynic might speculate that the jury decision is nothing more than a publicity wheeze to make WPP appear edgy and relevant. A more likely explanation is that faced with ASOUE the jury simply forgot photojournalism’s most basic functions, such as to inform and enlighten; not to mention the fact that photojournalists generally create new images, rather than simply curate – Wolf’s own description – images that already exist.
Wolf has characterised the jury decision as progressive, but he would say that. A more accurate assessment would be “destructive”, since the decision is bound only to undermine WPP’s credibility as a standard-bearer for photojournalism. Whether that matters outside the arcane world of photo contests is open to question, but WPP may want to refer future juries to their mission statement before judging begins. Alternatively they could learn from the admission requirements at Visa Pour L’Image: “We are an international festival of photojournalism focusing on news and current affairs. Please, NO art photography.”