IT’S A BEAUTIFUL WORLD
by Angus McDonald
In an age of digital media, the World Press Photo competition might seem like an anachronism. Yet it gets 100,000 entries and two million visitors. Moonpeak went along for a look.
The first room of the exhibit is the comfort zone, with padded benches and pictures of wildlife and sport. A school of sailfish spirals elegantly upwards as it corrals its prey. Whooper swans shiver fluffily on an icy river. A Cape gannet flies straight at the camera as it comes in to land, its beaky glare and eerie markings suggesting a comic book villain or a creaking vintage plane. In the series Sports 2010 by Adam Pretty, hockey players have just scored a goal, a diver launches into a dive. Only one image contains something out of kilter, and even this takes a second to register. A pack of steeplechasers hurdles a barrier at the Youth Olympics in Singapore, the flying bodies frozen in a moment of utter athleticism. The flawless composition finds the exact space to incorporate a runner plunging headfirst into water, his body suspended by the perfectly timed snap of the shutter. The picture has some of the aesthetic of a wildlife shot, the falling runner prey to the random brutality of the animal world.
In the next room, a matador is gored through the throat, the point of the horn emerging through his mouth, his leg twined in an elegant tango with the bull’s. Behind a flimsy fence in Kinshasa, a member of Central Africa’s only symphony orchestra practises the cello as the scrappy business of an African city continues outside. Bolivian women in skirts and bowler hats participate in the traditional sport of lucha libre wrestling.
The World Press Photo competition attracted entries from 5,691 photographers in 125 nations. Judges assessed 108,059 images, awarding prizes to 54 photojournalists from 23 countries. The exhibition tours the world for a year, visiting 45 countries in 100 venues, and is seen by more than two million people. This particular display was in Sydney, at the State Library of New South Wales. Managed by a trust based in the Netherlands and dating to 1955, the World Press Photo is the world’s most widely toured photo exhibition.
No wonder that even this rarefied offering is a sprawling mass of the world’s beauty, ugliness, horror and inspiration. With 19 judges selecting prize winners in nine categories, there’s always going to be something to disagree with. A picture of Mexican actor Fabian Lopez playing a role in a gangster movie, for example, is indistinguishable from a cinema still. If this is intended as a kind of Brechtian intervention, it is stating the obvious – anyone who hasn’t noticed by now that their understanding of the world is filtered by the media, hasn’t been paying attention. For the picture to work it needs to problematise the visual language of the medium, not merely repeat it. Amit Madheshiya’s essay on Indian tent cinemas, on the other hand, makes use of loosely composed portraits of enraptured spectators that are so richly toned and taken with such self-evident love that they are irresistible. The subject may be familiar, but how long will it be before this aspect of Indian life disappears, along with so many others?
Martin Roemer’s pictures of cities also shed fresh light on the familiar. The winner of the Daily Life category with the series Metropolis, the Dutch photographer set out to document the landmark fact that, for the first time in history, the population living in cities now outnumbers rural dwellers. These pictures, taken on a Mamiya 7 medium format film camera using slow shutter speeds, blur the frantic human activity of Jakarta, Istanbul, Kolkata, Mumbai and Manila into marbled swirls of intense colour that convey a paradoxical sense of orderliness. People shopping in a market lane in Mumbai become a soft matrix, while in another part of the city the streaking lines of speeding trains mirror the static colours of stopped taxis or goods stacked in shops. Surging lines of traffic in Jakarta push towards each other with pure energy but do not collide.
Two heads rise from behind a stage balcony, the background striated in shades of grey. One glances uncertainly across at the other, who in turn gazes forward with an unreadable stare. One is elderly, the skin hanging in folds, the other young and puppy faced, with pads of fat glistening around premature jowls. In the next photograph, a child is caught amid golden sunrays that streak across a room. Shadows of bars, doors and windows play across the background. The girl’s hair is immaculately brushed, her dress a pretty chiffon shift, her neck and wrist adorned with pearl-like bracelets. But her face is vacant and bug-eyed. She lifts a hand to an eye, as if to brush away a tear.
The two men are the Kims, father and son, the president of North Korea and his designated successor, photographed by Vincent Yu at a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2010. The child is nine-year-old Nguyen Thi Li from Da Nang in Vietnam, photographed by Ed Kashi. She is suffering from disabilities believed to be caused by the defoliant Agent Orange, widely sprayed in the area during the Vietnam War. What is striking about this pairing is the way the unspeakable beauty of the child overpowers the fragility and falsehood of a dictatorship. This is what the World Press Photo does: it tells the stories of ordinary people, whose lives somehow transcend the most appalling circumstances. It mostly does not bother with the politicians and the perpetrators. We see enough of them on TV.
The news photographs are necessarily more jagged, less technically perfect. The farthest corner of the exhibition is a chamber of horrors. A severed head sits upright by a Mexico roadside, a deadly shootout on the streets of Rio is caught in sequence, bodies are piled up for disposal after an earthquake in Yushu, Qinghai. Daniel Morel’s photograph of a woman emerging from rubble in Haiti just minutes after the earthquake conveys the exact rawness of the moment, the dazed shakiness of the photographer who has himself just lived through the event. But an image does not need to depict actual violence to be disturbing. In Marco Di Lauro’s picture Niger ‘Food Crisis’, pieces from the hacked carcasses of cattle hang from the limbs of dead trees in a yard in Gadabedji Reserve in the Maradi region of Niger. Drought in the area has forced farmers to sell their starving animals at reduced rates to buy food, producing an image of Dali-esque weirdness. A rooster pecks at the meat, while the only human figure is a man exiting the compound at the rear. His back to the camera, his figure diminutive within the composition, he seems to mimic the spectator turning away after a moment’s contemplation. Who’s heard of Maradi, after all? In mid-2010 the World Food Program estimated 2.5 million children were in need of emergency food aid in Niger.
Some of the works tackle the rise of digital media, which is posing such difficulties for the practice of conventional photojournalism. The results are mixed. Michael Wolf’s series of photographs of computer screens displaying images from Google Street View, A Series of Unfortunate Events, makes a conceptual point but its visual interest relies on the sensational. Conversely, a set of pictures shot by Chilean miners while they were trapped underground for 69 days gives an insight into scenes no one else could have captured. A series by German photographer Wolfram Hahn documents people re-enacting the self-portraits they took for social networking website MySpace. The youngsters, all of whom live in Hahn’s hometown of Berlin, are caught in the flash of their digital cameras, surrounded by the ephemera of everyday life. The work comments on the paradox of individuals sharing their lives with a worldwide community while isolated in their homes, simultaneously noting the transience inherent in the whole business. Ultimately these photographs register the decline of the once-dominant photojournalistic gaze, whose monopoly of dissemination has been so spectacularly scuppered by the internet. Yet this democratisation, Hahn seems to be saying, has funnelled photography into a narcissistic practice, the focus shifting from a wider world to the self, restless exploration of the outer giving way to ceaseless documentation of the inner.
Controversy surrounded the Photo of the Year, a portrait of Afghan teenager Bibi Aisha by South African photographer Jodi Bieber. The picture featured on the cover of Time, alongside the headline ‘What happens if we leave Afghanistan’. The treatment was criticised for its injection of emotionalism into the complex debate on the US involvement in the war, and the photograph itself for turning suffering into spectacle. Bibi Aisha had her nose and ears cut off on the orders of the Taliban after she fled her husband’s family, complaining of beatings. After the initial shock of the missing nose, the viewer is transfixed by the beauty of the face – the almond eyes, the flowerbud mouth, the shimmering headscarf, the piercing look. This is horror with Hollywood styling, said the critics, a piece of voyeurism designed to sell magazines. In a video interview running as part of the exhibition, Bieber counters that the treatment empowers Bibi Aisha, releasing her from victimhood by bringing out the person behind the scars. The debate reflected the conventional criticism of the World Press Photo, that it is a means for the comfortable to contemplate the miserable. This argument ignores the profusion of beauty that is also on display, beauty that as often as not is found amid suffering. That Bieber’s picture managed to capture both qualities so exquisitely is, you’d have to suspect, one of the reasons it won.