Moscow Russia, 25/07/2012.
Russians gather at the grave of legendary Soviet singer, poet and actor Vladimir Vysotsky to mark the 32nd anniversary of his death. Vysotsky, an alcoholic and drug addict who died in 1980 aged 42 of a heart attack, is best known for his songs of Soviet prison and military life, and his acting on stage and screen. Much of his work was officially unpublished during his lifetime, and he remains a potent anti-authoritarian symbol of protest to Russians of all ages even today. Every year hundreds gather to recite his poetry, since his songs…and celebrate with a few drinks.

A woman holds her wounded son in her arms, inside a mosque used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen on 15 October 2011. © Samuel Aranda 2011. All rights reserved.
Photo © Samuel Aranda 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Who’d be a World Press Photo winner? Or even a juror? In recent times it’s become something of a tradition to attack both the winning photo and the contest: this year did not disappoint.

Martijn Kleppe has an excellent and growing collection of links to various articles on this year’s WPP results; two that have gained considerable attention are hit pieces by Joerg Colberg at Conscientious, and James Johnson at Politics, Theory & Photography. It’s worth noting that neither Colberg nor Johnson are press photographers: the former is an astrophysicist, fine art photography curator and writer, the latter a professor of political theory at the University of Rochester. Nor does either claim any special knowledge of Islam and the Arab world. So while Colberg and Johnson are entitled to their opinions, they don’t appear to possess any specialist skills or insights that render those opinions particularly valuable.

The heart of their objections is the apparent resemblance of Samuel Aranda’s winning photo to the Christian imagery of the Pietà, most famously by Michelangelo. Almost inevitably, this resemblance has led some to claim that Aranda faked the photo: the most extreme version of this is the theory that the whole thing was a put-up job by American imperialists.

Fortunately neither Colberg nor Johnson go quite that far. Rather, they argue that it was wrong to award a photograph that appears to reference – even inadvertently – Christian iconography; that in doing so WPP reveals its own inherent bias; and that the award also serves to obscure the political background to the image. Here’s a taste:

Joerg Colberg:

“If you have followed the news over the past decade even just tangentially, you might realize that using a visual language that could not be more Christian to depict an event in a Muslim country might pose a problem.”

James Johnson:

“Not only does it reduce politics to the personal, it does that by assimilating the stereotypical burka-clad woman to deeply Christian iconography. We don’t even get universal humanism here. We here in the west are encouraged not to appreciate the realities and particularities of another world. Instead we are encouraged to see others as essentially just like ‘we Christians.’ Aranda’s image – presented as the ‘photo of the year’ – seem to me to divert understanding, to make it more difficult.”

The problem with these criticisms and others is that they’re not really so much about Aranda’s photo as the authors’ own underlying prejudices and obsessions. But this year there was a twist to the criticisms. No sooner had Western political theorists and academics finished complaining about the blinkered Western nature of World Press Photo than another group of commentators emerged: people from the actual country where the photo has been taken, and most crucially, the two people in the photo. And those people all offer a rather different assessment of both the photo and the jury’s decision:

Nadia Abdulla, Yemeni photographer:

“We feel proud of this photo because it is very important for the world to have a new impression of Yemen. The foreign media has been presenting Yemenis as terrorists but this is the first time Yemen’s beautiful and expressive side has been shown.”

Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni blogger:

“It sums up what the Yemeni nation and the rest of Arab [and non-Arab] revolutionary nations have gone through in pursuit of democracy and freedom.”

Zayed Al-Qawas, the 18 year old man in the photo, who had been tear-gassed by government forces:

“It is a real support to the revolution. It demonstrates that Yemenis are not extremists. The picture explains everything. The picture really explains the love of the mother, and the wounded son, and what happened on that day in Yemen.”

Fatima Al-Qawas, Zayed’s mother, seen holding him in the photo:

“It makes me very happy to see this picture, to see also that it has won such a prestigious award. It makes me happy and very proud: proud for being a woman, proud for being a mother, and also for being a Yemeni woman. I’m very proud that this photo is going around the world and many people have seen it and will continue seeing it. And especially it makes me even happier because it’s Western people who have chosen that picture for the award.”

So what was the problem with the photo again?

Moscow Russia, 18-19/01/2012.
Some 70,000 Muscovites celebrate the Orthodox Epiphany holiday by diving into the city’s frozen lakes and rivers. Russian priests bless the waters and the faithful believe that by immersing themselves in the holy water they will wash away their sins for the year.

Krasnoarmeysk, Moscow Region, Russia, 29/10/2010. An armoured personnel carrier is showered with confetti from fireworks during a Russian special forces training at a military base outside Moscow. The exercise was part of the Interpolitex 2010 state security exhibition.
Photo © Jeremy Nicholl 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Krasnoarmeysk, Moscow Region, Russia, 29/10/2010.
An armoured personnel carrier is showered with confetti from fireworks during a Russian special forces training exercise at a military base outside Moscow. The exercise was part of the Interpolitex 2010 state security exhibition.

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 10/10/2010. A life-size statue of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, outside a gay nightclub called Kremlin.
Photo © Jeremy Nicholl 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Belfast, Northern Ireland, 10/10/2010.
A life-size statue of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, outside a gay nightclub called Kremlin.

What I’m thinking…

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