There are three issues I am critical about when I look at photojournalism. One is making suffering look aesthetically pleasing and pretty. Even if contextualized well, such photos contribute to a visual imaginary that’s distorted. And I have an ethical problem with that.
Second is photographing something simply because it is so weird or disturbing that it gets attention for the photo itself, not the issue. An example of that is this photo of these albino indian blind boys at a school in India. The photo is unusual, they look unusual and the photo is staged so they look even more unusual. I am not sure how much focus is being put on the fact that they go to one of the few schools for blind kids that exist in India. I have no idea how many blind kids there are in India. I actually have no idea, from the photo, of anything that’s important about portraying them. The feeling it gives is rather of art than anything else. The photographer, Brent Stirton, is without a doubt talented. He photographed many important issues and he has a large portfolio of good pictures. But I’m not sure about the message this photo gives, besides being the poster for the World Press Photo exhibition in Amsterdam and inviting people to see this year’s “unusual”.
Last, I am troubled by the stereotypes the interpretation of photojournalistic images can strengthen. And with this, the power is in the eyes of the beholder, the one who looks and the one who writes about the photos. I wrote about related stories before, here and here.
This year’s World Press Photo big winner is different than the previous ones (see 2012 and 2013) in terms of subject, aesthetic drama and the many debates and controversies previous winners have stirred. In short, John Stanmeyer, the winning photographer, portrays something sensitive and important and it doesn’t touch any of the issues I mentioned above either. The photo is political and at the same time stays away from the political in it. That’s great except for the fact that it falls into a new problematic category.
The photo is impressive but if you wouldn’t read its description, you might think it a picture of people photographing a moon eclipse or some other natural phenomena. And if World Press Photo got tired of open (and often problematic) statements, does it mean we’re moving into a new phase of these elite awards?
“African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City at night raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. Djibouti is a common stop-off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East” reads the caption.
But the photo can stand by itself, as art. At the same time, without reading its caption, looses its original meaning completely. Great photo. Great art. But what do you feel and see when you look at it?