The World Press Photo winner last year made me wonder whether the competition is moving towards a new phase, less political, less charged and beautifying drama a bit less. This year’s winning photo confuses me completely. Not because it’s not so political and not so filled with connotations as the previous winners, but because the photo doesn’t speak for itself at all. Without reading a caption and without reading about why it was chosen, it is just an artistic portrayal of two people doing something, not really clear what. The photo is part of a larger project called Homophobia in Russia and I bet that when seen in context it does makes sense. But by itself, it doesn’t say much. Besides this, for the first time in the history of the competition, I look at the winner and don’t even see the ‘press’ in World Press Photo.
The photo belongs to Danish photographer Mads Nissen and it’s a portrait of Jon and Alex, a gay couple, during an intimate moment in St. Petersburg, Russia. It might be just me, but I really don’t feel the intimacy. It looks like – as a friend of mine also says – one is checking a zit on the other. Or perhaps one fell asleep and the other feels pretty anxious. All together, without being told what you’re seeing, you don’t really know what you’re seeing, do you?
You can also see something totally different. Another friend of mine wrote that she feels pretty disturbed by the photo because she initially thought it was a portrait of a different kind of love, between a little boy and a man. While many of the previous winners have been charged photos, (too) full of connotations, this year’s winner seems to be a fraction of something you cannot intuitively guess what it is. While previous winners were framing an issue too much, this one is not even clear to which issue is related.
In the end, one shouldn’t really need a lot of explanations to understand what they’re looking at. “The deeply personal and subtle portrait stands in stark contrast with the hundreds of graphic images of protests, suffering and death that have marked 2014 – from Ukraine to Gaza, Ferguson to West Africa, and from parts of the Middle East where militants associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria have shared gruesome images of decapitated hostages” says the Time article about the winner. It probably does stand in contrast, 20 explanations and quotes later, when you actually figure out the web of thoughts behind it and you have an “aha” moment.
To me, there are too many big words and conceptualizations (read the jury statements) around the photo. The winning photo shouldn’t need so many words and explanations, it should make sense the moment you look at it, you should feel it the moment you look at it. The context is (always) necessary to ad something to it, something you cannot know, but there are many things one should know simply by looking.
In fact, the only thing that’s touching is the statement the photo tries to make. Being gay in Russia is a very difficult thing to be, there’s risk of serious violence against you, there’s a big stigma above you and you can also end up in jail. And yet, there’s love, there’s closeness, and that matters the most. This is what the photo aims to tell. But does it?