It used to be you won an award and people would say nice things, at least to your face; now it’s an excuse for a mob to take to the Internet and vilify you. In the week since Jodi Bieber’s portrait of Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan woman disfigured by her family – who may or may not have been members of the Taliban – arguments have raged over World Press Photo’s decision to award their premier prize to the image.
Of course there’s always an argument about the WPP winner: what made this different was that it was not the usual “wrong choice” wrangle. Instead the controversy had its roots in Time Magazine’s previous use of the image to support the US military presence in Afghanistan. WPP had judged the image, but Bieber’s critics were focused on the use of that image and her part in its use: as a result discussion rapidly descended into a de facto personal attack on Bieber.
The debate’s current terms of engagement were set in World Press Or Propaganda?, a post by Ben Chesterton at DuckRabbit:
1: Jodi Bieber won the World Press Award for an important and eloquent photograph that has done much to highlight the abuse of women and their resilience in the face of unspeakable barbarism.
2: The photograph that won the World Press was used as propaganda that helps justify the billions of pounds of profit made from war. Bieber is not to blame for this and this should not be a consideration in the jury’s mind.
3: The photograph that won the World Press was used as propaganda that helps justify the billions of pounds of profit made from war. Bieber is complicit in the way the image of Aisha has been (ab)used.
If the answer is 1 then we should all be celebrating the award going to Bieber but if it is 2 or 3 then we should be worried.
Logically the World Press jury would opt for 1 or 2; indeed it’s a reasonable assumption that most well informed people would. What drove the DuckRabbit discussion off the rails was that pretty much everyone went for option 3.
The thinking employed was simple in every respect. Bieber photographed Aisha; Time used the Bieber photo for propagandistic war mongering; therefore Bieber is a warmonger. The clincher, so far as the accusers were concerned, is that Bieber has the Time cover on her website; it didn’t seem to occur to them that it would be a very rare photographer indeed – show of hands anyone? – that made a Time cover and didn’t display it in such a way.
The other elementary fact of life that posters seemed unaware of is that neither Time, nor any other publication, gives freelance photographers the power of veto over cover headlines. You deliver the images and…that’s it. You have no further control over the production process. You may not like that. You may think it’s wrong. But none of that matters: that’s just the way it works. Ironically, at the same time that people were attacking Bieber on DuckRabbit, David Campbell was making this very point with an earlier quote from Bieber herself:
‘What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.’ This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline ‘What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,’ its form was beyond her control.
Bieber – probably sensibly – has remained silent, but eventually photographer Maggie Steber intervened at DuckRabbit with some common-sense home truths. Steber’s cry of witch-hunt was pretty much on the mark, but she could have selected a better target than DuckRabbit. A more appropriate choice might have been Bieber’s chief vilifier Jim Johnson, who describes himself as “a political theorist with neither experience as, nor any real aspiration to be, a photographer.” That’s a useful confession since it at least tells us upfront that when it comes to photojournalism Johnson doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Ignorance however hasn’t prevented Johnson developing something of an obsession with the Bieber/Aisha photo: in the little over 6 months since the Time cover he’s churned out no less than four lengthy blog posts of several thousand words on the subject. Along the way he’s made some interesting discoveries: like if the text accompanying a photograph is changed [see above] then the viewer’s perception of the photograph’s meaning is also changed. Thanks for that Jim: photographers would never have guessed.
Many of the concerns expressed at DuckRabbit were valid, but the subject of people’s ire should have been the Time editors, not the photographer; and using Bieber as target practice to express those concerns was simply cowardly. As for Johnson, on his Facebook page he describes his political views as “extreme and more or less unforgiving”. Just like the Taliban then.