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.

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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.

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