The Rhetoric of Prize Winning Photographs

Instead of asking only if prize winning images are manipulated, we should also ask why they are changed to become the way they are.

Is it a fake? Is it pho­tos­hop­ped? Is it real? Paul Hansen’s win­ner of the 2012 World Press Photo com­pe­tition is just the latest examp­le of more than 100 years of con­ti­nuous discus­sions about the mani­pu­la­tion of pho­to­graphs.

How­e­ver, inste­ad of asking only if prize win­ning ima­ges are mani­pu­lated (and of cour­se in some way they all are), we should also ask why are they changed to become the way they are? Or, to put it dif­fe­rent­ly: what kinds of pho­to­graphs win awards? When we look clo­ser at the chan­ging sty­les of the win­ning pho­to­graphs sin­ce the begin­ning of the World Press Photo com­pe­tition in 1955, we see that Hansen’s pic­tu­re is part of a cine­ma­tic form of expres­sion that has emer­ged in the last 6–7 years.

Netherlands World Press Photo Contest

The ima­ge por­trays fami­ly mem­bers from Gaza car­ry­ing the bodies of a two small child­ren to their buri­al after being kil­led in an Israe­li air strike. It is no coin­ci­den­ce that it has been cal­led a movie pos­ter. How­e­ver, the photo is more like a still; a story fro­zen in time, but con­densed with motion and move­ment, invi­ting us into a nar­ra­ti­ve of what has hap­pe­ned before, and what might hap­pen next. This new trend is dif­fe­rent from other domi­nant sty­les among the WPP win­ners.

Some of the win­ning pic­tu­res hold what we can call news moments (simi­lar to Henri Car­ti­er Bresson’s deci­si­ve moments). Most of the news moments are from the 1960s. A pri­me examp­le is Eddie Adams’ 1968 pic­tu­re of the exe­cution of a sus­pec­ted Viet Cong mem­ber, showing the exact moment of the bullet’s pene­tra­tion of the brain. The impact of the pic­tu­re lies pri­ma­ri­ly in cap­turing a cer­tain news event in a frac­tion a second.

The clo­ser we get to this cen­tury, the fewer pic­tu­res we see of such news moments. Inste­ad we see more featu­re-like pho­to­graphs cap­turing – not a moment, but a gene­ral situa­tion or con­dition. Take this win­ner from 2004 por­tray­ing a woman mour­ning a rela­ti­ve after the Asi­an tsu­na­mi of Decem­ber 2003.

Image 2, WPP 2004, A. Datta

The photo is con­structed around a jux­ta­po­sition betwe­en the dead body, repre­sented by only an arm in the left of the frame, and the bereaved, repre­sented by a woman lying face down on the sand in the right part of the frame. This kind of expli­cit­ly arti­s­tic visu­al rhe­to­ric pre­vai­led from 2000–2004.

The 2001 win­ner por­trays how the body of a one-year-old boy who died of dehy­dra­tion is being pre­pared for buri­al at Jalo­zai refugee camp in Pakis­tan. It is a very rare examp­le of a pic­tu­re being taken in a full bird’s eye per­s­pec­ti­ve, direct­ly from abo­ve.

Image 3, WPP 2001, E. Refner

The pic­tu­re is domi­nated by the whi­te color of the dra­ping she­ets, cove­ring the body of the litt­le boy, so we only see the left side of his face. He seems at peace, and the pic­tu­re exu­des calm­ness, giving it an almost ethe­re­al dimension. Com­bined with the ang­le of the arms dra­ping the she­ets, the pic­tu­re is more an aest­he­tic moment than it is a news moment.

Hansen’s pic­tu­re is neit­her a news moment nor an aest­he­tic moment – not to say, of cour­se, that it does not have style. All ima­ges do. Inste­ad the aest­he­tic tendency exhi­bited in this pic­tu­re is a more of a kind of movie rea­lism, a sort of pho­to­grap­hic cine­ma veri­té. We see a simi­lar tendency in the win­ners from 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The 2007-win­ner shows a US sol­di­er sin­king onto an embank­ment in a bun­ker in Afgha­ni­stan. The 2008 win­ner depicts a police­man ente­ring a home in Cle­ve­land, USA, in order to check whether the owners have vaca­ted the pre­mi­ses. In 2009 we see women shou­ting their dis­sent from a Teh­ran rooftop following Iran’s dis­puted pre­si­den­ti­al election.

Image 4_Winners of WPP 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012

These ima­ges are not color­ful, the­re are no clo­se ups, no cle­ar, simp­le or stylized com­po­sitions, and no con­spi­cuous jux­ta­po­sitions or an obvious use of some part to repre­sent a whole. They give the impres­sion of the fic­tio­nal rea­lism we some­ti­mes encoun­ter at the cine­ma.

Whi­le the begin­ning of the deca­de pre­sented pho­to­graphs that have their main rhe­to­ri­cal appe­al in their com­po­sitio­nal and aest­he­tic orga­niza­tion, these pho­to­graphs appe­al more through story-making. The first kind invi­tes the viewer insi­de the frame, encoura­ging explo­ra­tion of the ele­ments in the visu­al moment, cap­ti­va­ting us through visu­al design. The second kind invi­tes the viewer out­side the frame, encoura­ging par­ti­ci­pa­tion in the con­struc­tion of a nar­ra­ti­ve, enga­ging us in spe­c­u­la­tions of what has hap­pe­ned and what will hap­pen.

This kind of neo-rea­li­s­tic press pho­to­grap­hy seems to be more open to inter­pre­ta­tion than the more obvious sym­bo­lic pho­tos. The stran­ge thing, though, is that the more the pic­tu­res draw us into a story of most­ly our own crea­tion, they seem to draw us away from the events they are depic­ting. They are all fabu­lous ima­ges, but even when pro­vi­ded with the back­sto­ries I remain a specta­tor immer­sed in the story, in awe of the artwork, wai­ting for the movie to pre­miere.

World Press Photo award-win­ning pho­to­graphs by Paul Han­sen, Arko Dat­ta, Erik Ref­ner, and (clockwise from the upp­er left) Tim Hethe­ring­ton, Paul Han­sen, Pie­tro Mas­tur­zo, and Antho­ny Suau.

This text has pre­vious­ly been pub­lis­hed on the site No Cap­tion Nee­ded. If you are inte­re­sted in photo­jour­na­lism, don’t miss it.







  1. […] from the tra­ditio­nal win­ners over the years that way, how­e­ver, it seems to also be part of an emer­ging trend among the win­ning pho­to­graphs of recent years: a cine­ma­tic aest­he­tics that com­bi­nes arti­s­tic […]

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