Yesterday, a friend told me that to avoid a cynic approach to life, you just had to choose to live it. I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, every year, when the world press photo nominees start to invade the visual arena, I get a little consumed with anger and frustration. It’s a waste of time, I know. So I write about it here to exorcise the demons and move on.
The devil in me would say we should just make an effort to end WPP from contaminating people with the idea that 1) this is the best of photojournalism; 2) these are good photographs; 3) if you come and see the exhibition you’ll get a sense of what’s happening around the world; 4) for coming in contact with these photographs, we become more knowledgeable about the world; etc. Of course, trying to end it would be fundamentally stupid, but I honestly think this is damaging people’s notion of what is empathy and what the human condition “looks like”. It’s as if these images blinded the observer, instead of enlightening us.
A less devilish version of me understands that not all is corrupted in WPP. One can always find good eggs. But the problem is: how can I overlook some of their choices, meaning: the choice to promote a certain kind of imagery as an example of “good photojournalism”?
So what the fuck am I talking about? you may rightfully ask. Well, let’s just throw ourselves at it and see the worst of examples. Below is Patrick Browns’ photograph of bodies of Rohingya refugees (laid out after the boat in which they were attempting to flee Myanmar capsized about eight kilometers off Inani Beach, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 28th September, 2017). This photograph is nominated in the general news category, so the jury thinks this is a good example of how to illustrate this moment in history. Let’s not be confused about this. photojournalism illustrates, so when one chooses to publish this image to accompany the event that killed Rohingya refugees, you’re also saying this is what it looks like? And what does it look like? It’s beautiful. It’s a great example of how photographers, more often than not, misuse technique.
Beautiful lightning, beautiful colors, beautiful harmony, beautiful symmetry… Yes, we could say this exposes the gruesome nature of life, how one can be killed in an instant, how these lives are wasted, their beautiful bodies still wet, their beautiful bodies still wanting to breath beneath those cloths. But how does this illustrate the tragedy? How does the aesthetic nature of this photograph convey the essence of the human condition? How can we say this is not beautiful? Does poetic discourse has a place here?