World Press Photo winner: More about the human condition than about news

World Press Photo of the Year 2014 continues a tendency of choosing winners that are less about news and more about aesthetically exploring what it means to be a human.

Two years ago, an over­whelm­ing major­i­ty in the Russ­ian par­lia­ment adopt­ed a law ban­ning homo­sex­u­al pro­pa­gan­da. Any­one – indi­vid­u­als or orga­ni­za­tions – who breaks the law by orga­niz­ing events about homo­sex­u­al­i­ty risk not only impo­si­tion of a fine but also impris­on­ment. In Rus­sia, you can­not even com­mu­ni­cate LGBT-sub­jects to minors. That would be ille­gal propaganda. 

We can write about the social pre­con­di­tions for this law, we can tell about the con­se­quences, and we can talk about what it means to be a homo­sex­u­al in Rus­sia. How­ev­er, words can­not give us quite the same sense of the issue – of what it is like to be a homo­sex­u­al or a homo­pho­bic in Rus­sia – that pho­tographs can.


This is evi­dent from the win­ner of World Press Pho­to of the Year 2014 above. This pic­ture, “Jon and Alex”, tak­en by the Dan­ish pho­tog­ra­ph­er Mads Nis­sen, shows two young Russ­ian homo­sex­u­als at Alex’ home in Saint Peters­burg. They have been mak­ing love. Nis­sen has caught a ten­der, inti­mate moment of affec­tion and desire. The pic­ture has a rare qual­i­ty of being out of time and space. It gives us no sign of where or when it is tak­en. There are no vis­i­ble clothes, no phones, no fur­nish­ing – noth­ing but the young naked bod­ies in front of the heavy drapes in the back­ground. The colours are dark; the bot­tom com­plete­ly black, the back­ground obscure and gold­en brown. there is only dark­ness except for the light on the faces and upper bod­ies of the two men.

The spir­i­tu­al sense of eter­ni­ty and inde­ter­mi­na­cy is sup­port­ed by the man lying down. We know that he is alive, but he looks almost dead or in solemn ecsta­sy. The pic­ture draws upon a dom­i­nant motif in the his­to­ry of sculp­ture and paint­ing: Christ lying in the arms of Maria in Michelangelo’s Pietá (1498–99) or Caravaggio’s Saint Fran­cis of Assisi in Ecsta­sy (1595).

Even though Nissen’s pic­ture is about love and affec­tion – at least on the sur­face of it – the feel­ings and the pain depict­ed in such his­toric rep­re­sen­ta­tions, offer a way of under­stand­ing the pain that sur­rounds a shel­tered moment of love in Saint Peters­burg. This under­stand­ing gains fur­ther emo­tion­al pow­er when seen in con­text with Nissen’s oth­er pho­tographs in his series “Homo­pho­bia in Rus­sia”, which doc­u­ment the harass­ment and vio­lence towards gays in Rus­sia. The pain seem­ing­ly absent in “Alex and Jon” is lurk­ing underneath.

Like many of Caravaggio’s baroque paint­ings, Nissen’s pho­to­graph of “Jon and Alex” is a cre­ation of dark­ness made sig­nif­i­cant by a few areas of light, in which we can project our own sen­ti­ments and ideas. Inter­est­ing­ly, even though the colours are brighter, we see Car­avag­gio rep­re­sent­ed in a sim­i­lar way in direc­tor Derek Jarman’s fic­tion­alised re-telling of the painter’s life; in this film still show­ing Car­avag­gio lying ill in his bed.

In many ways, Nissen’s pic­ture also has the qual­i­ty of a film still tableau. The pho­to­graph is not a news shot, it is not a pic­ture of an impor­tant event, it is not even a pic­ture of a pub­lic event.

Through the his­to­ry of the win­ners of World Press Pho­to, the most com­mon trait has been depic­tion of war and vio­lence, suf­fer­ing and con­flict. Gen­er­al­ly the pic­tures are from areas out­side West­ern Europe and the USA. His­tor­i­cal­ly, most have been news pho­tos shot in Africa, South­east Asia and Latin Amer­i­ca. Recent­ly, more win­ners have been pic­tures from the Mid­dle East. (I elab­o­rate in the paper: For­mu­las of Prize-Win­ning Press Pho­tos.)

The pic­ture of “Jon and Alex” seems to be from nowhere – or every­where. It is a pri­vate moment, not a pub­lic event. It is ten­der and lov­ing, not vio­lent and painful. If it’s dif­fer­ent 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 com­po­si­tions with invi­ta­tion to storytelling.

Com­pare, for instance to the 2007-win­ner by Tim Het­her­ing­ton show­ing a US sol­dier sink­ing onto an embank­ment in a bunker in Afghanistan. As in Nis­sens’ pic­ture the colours and lines are not bright, crisp or clear, but rather dark, indis­tinct and almost blurred. Here as well the bright­est point is the face of a human being.

Even though Hetherington’s pic­ture reports on a very pub­lic event, a war, it nev­er­the­less seems to present a pri­vate moment of an individual.

The same retreat to an inti­mate pri­va­cy can been seen in Samuel Aranda’s World Press Pho­to of the Year 2011 (sub­mit­ted to the “Peo­ple in the news” cat­e­go­ry). This win­ning pic­ture shows a moth­er, Fati­ma al-Qaws, cradling her son Zayed (18), who is suf­fer­ing from the effects of tear gas after par­tic­i­pat­ing in a street demon­stra­tion in Sanaa, Yemen. The pho­to­graph does not show the vio­lent pub­lic actions we nor­mal­ly see in news shots; instead it presents us with the reper­cus­sions of such events for the pri­vate, per­son­al life of indi­vid­u­als. It shows us the love between two people.

The pic­ture is not as dark as Nis­sens’ pho­to, but it shares the aes­thet­ics of the earth­tone colours and the fea­ture-like quality.

We see a par­al­lel sto­ry-telling ten­den­cy in the Pho­to of the Year 2013 by John Stan­mey­er. This pic­ture depicts African migrants on the shore of Dji­bouti City at night raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inex­pen­sive sig­nal from neigh­bour­ing Somalia.

Like many of the recent win­ners, this could have been a film still, and like Nissen’s pic­ture, Stanmeyer’s pho­to was entered for the “Con­tem­po­rary Issues” cat­e­go­ry, not for the “Spot News” com­pe­ti­tion. More than report­ing news, these images deal with a gen­er­al issue: offer­ing a visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion of a human condition.

One can’t help spec­u­late whether this appar­ent ten­den­cy to a move from spot news pho­tos to more fea­ture-like images might be con­nect­ed to the fact that cell phones and mod­ern pho­to equip­ment makes every­one a news pho­tog­ra­ph­er these days. We can all cap­ture a moment with a cam­era – even in crisp, clear focus. How­ev­er, explor­ing a sub­ject visu­al­ly, telling a sto­ry pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly, inter­pret­ing a human con­di­tion through images, is more dif­fi­cult. Not many of us have the abil­i­ty con­scious­ly, or even instinc­tive­ly, to cre­ate pho­tographs that allude to the mas­ter­pieces of paint­ing, car­ry­ing on and extend­ing their explo­ration of what it means to be a human being. For­tu­nate­ly, we still have pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phers with this ability.

Photo credits

pho­to 1: Mads Nissen
cap­tion: Jon, 21, and Alex, 25, a gay cou­ple, dur­ing an inti­mate moment. Life for les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al or trans­gen­der (LGBT) peo­ple is becom­ing increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult in Rus­sia. Sex­u­al minori­ties face legal and social dis­crim­i­na­tion, harass­ment, and even vio­lent hate-crime attacks from con­ser­v­a­tive reli­gious and nation­al­is­tic groups, 2014.

pho­to 2: Tim Hetherington
cap­tion: A sol­dier of Sec­ond Pla­toon, Bat­tle Com­pa­ny of the Sec­ond Bat­tal­ion of the US 503rd Infantry Reg­i­ment sinks onto an embank­ment in the Restre­po bunker at the end of the day. The Koren­gal Val­ley was the epi­cen­ter of the US fight against mil­i­tant Islam in Afghanistan and the scene of some of the dead­liest com­bat in the region, 2007.

pho­to 3: Samuel Arranda
cap­tion: Fati­ma al-Qaws cra­dles her son Zayed (18), who is suf­fer­ing from the effects of tear gas after par­tic­i­pat­ing in a street demon­stra­tion, in Sanaa, Yemen, 2010.

pho­to 4: John Stanmeyer
cap­tion: 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, 2013.







  1. In medias res!


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