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World Press Photo 2012 Winner: the photo is wonderful but how does it serve our understanding?

This year’s World Press Photo winner is Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda and his picture of a Yemeni mother holding her son, wounded during protests against president Saleh. After winning the award, the photo was subject to a lot of debate and criticism, mainly because its composition has been likened to Michelangelo’s Pieta and also because of its Renaissance style of lighting.

From my point of view, the photo is beautiful. Does it resemble Pieta? Yes. Does it make you want to look at it? Yes. Is this all? No.

I have the feeling that the debate is so much centered on the picture itself, that it actually fails to ask some important questions and fails to put the picture in context. I am not talking about tracing where the picture was taken or whom the people in the picture are, BBC already did that. What I mean is placing the picture in the context of its exhibiting space in the Western world, like the paper it was published in or the World Press Photo exhibition where only a short text will ‘guard’ the picture. And then asking what does it do? How do people look at it?

I find this last question to be the most important. In general, photography doesn’t have a fixed meaning. It is subject to as many interpretations as people seeing it. But if photojournalism’s claimed role is to inform and create awareness, we have to ask ourselves, does it really do that?

As David Campbell wrote on his website: ‘The lesson from the debate about Aranda’s winning photograph is that even with press pictures we see through symbols. Such photographs are inescapably symbolic’.

Yes they are. And maybe it’s important to ask what role does aesthetics play in creating this symbolism? Would a simple snapshot of a woman holding her wounded son be as controversial as a high quality snapshot with perfect composition and well chosen lighting like Aranda’s photo is? The photo is wonderful, but how does it really serve our understanding?

On one side people understand aesthetic photojournalistic images through symbols. But do they also see what these symbols might distort? I am really afraid that these aesthetic symbols are comfortable ways of looking at subjects otherwise complex and painful. Isn’t it easier to see a beautiful Pieta as symbol of the Arab Spring? Isn’t it pleasing? Isn’t it heroic? Beautiful? Iconic? But what do we actually understand of the struggle, of what it’s like to protest in Yemen, of what it’s like to be a muslim mother wearing the niqab, holding her wounded son?

I am afraid that these aesthetics make things easier and more digestible. And instead of creating awareness and understanding and cultural empathy, they level down feelings to simply admiring a beautiful photo.

As Campbell writes: ”If you go through all the posts discussing Aranda’s photograph collected by Kleppe, the variety and richness of the interpretations is remarkable. People have understood it as a Christian icon, a 19thcentury orientalist painting, a sculptural form, a depoliticization of the Arab Spring, evidence of the hegemonic Western eye, a sign of a bloody conflict, a rendering of universal humanity, a personal moment of compassion, an affirmation of the strength of Islamic women, and an image whose beauty forces us to look’.

These perceptions are heroic and aesthetic. The jury’s arguments are formulated in language meant for art. The question is: what does it mean? Should we redefine photojournalism and its role?

As Joerg Colberg writes: ‘We have a problem, a problem that has actually increased over the past few years. We have seen a great many photographers going to remote places, taking photographs. We have seen the news media, especially online, using more and more images to present events. But we have not seen any efforts to use these images to educate viewers what they are actually looking at.’

We do need a critical audience for all this imagery around us. And we do need to challenge the old fashioned understanding of photojournalism as naked proof. But in order to do so, we first need to understand what these images really mean for their audience and how they work in the collective mind.

As 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 Know Best’ will keep appearing year after year, just as the critics of winning photos like this one. And the valuable answers regarding the meaning of such photojournalism will stay blurry behind a debate of the type ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’.

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