Emotional Rescue

You’re too deep in
You can’t get out
You’re just a poor girl in a rich man’s house
Yeah, baby, I’m crying over you

The Rolling Stones, Emotional Rescue

A few weeks ago two events happened on the same day. First sparked the worldwide uproar, in virtually every person that follows the news on TV, the Internet, radio and printed media. Second was probably less emotional and more specific, but also was expected by global audience. I am talking about Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and World Press Photo 2011’s awards respectively.

Now, these two events may seem not to have much in common, but in fact they do. Both of them show how different people see the modern world and as a result, tendencies in contemporary journalism.

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Bibi Aisha, disfigured as punishment for fleeing her husband’s house, Kabul, Afghanistan. © Jodi Bieber, 2010

Let’s look at World Press Photo winners. The Photo of the Year depicts an afghan girl mutilated by Taliban. A very strong and emotional image. But photography wise this image leaves a lot to be desired. IMHO of course. It doesn’t require much skills to take a very, very staged photo of a girl when you have plenty of time and artificial light. However, it does take a lot of courage for the girl to agree to a photo session. But all that strikes us can be put in a few keywords: mutilated young girl, Taliban, Afghanistan, religious fundamentalism, Islam. For a westerner a lot of negative messages. Show it to a regular Afghani, who sees those things frequently, and I wonder if they will be struck by it.

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One of the best examples of how to create an interesting visual story: a photo series about a traveling cinema in India. © Amit Madheshiya, 2010

But let’s leave But not only this. This picture has been the talk of the town for the last half a year. Again, huge promotion (a deserved one. Such striking provocations should occasionally happen) by Time. But hey, where’s the photographer here? If you ask me it was the girl who should be praised, not the photographer, who didn’t do much as a photographer, except for traveling to Afghanistan, finding one of many mutilated girls and taking rather average picture of hers. Bad, bad Taliban. So it’s a girl to be praised in this case. But the WPP is not supposed to award mutilated girls. It is supposed to promote quality photography, by awarding photographers.

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Nguyen Thi Ly, 9, suffers from Agent Orange disabilities, Da Nang, Vietnam. © Ed Kashi, 2010

In light of this giving the second place prize in contemporary issues category to the portrait of a Vietnamese girl by Ed Kashi looks like a scorn. Photographically much more sophisticated picture of a child that suffers from disabilities caused by Agent Orange (a herbicide sprayed by the American army during the war in Vietnam) did not even make it to the first place. Why? Because it is less emotionally charged? Because the war in Vietnam was over some 35 years ago? Or was it because it was deeds of American army, and not Taliban? I would definitely like to know comparison of the criteria the WPP judges has used while coming up with decisions on these two photos.

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Gulf of Mexico oil spill:graphic but photographically uninteresting. And, oh, it’s the 1st prize story in Nature category. © Benjamin Lowy, 2010

As for the other first WPP 2011 places, they are mostly of the same kind: war, earthquakes, oil spills (can anyone explain to me how on earth there was no single good photo of the oil spill?) and volcanoes. All this stuff has been on our screens for the last year for sure. The resume is that photojournalism (journalism in general) has become a soap opera of the century. Every day we follow the news on Egypt and finally… Mubarak’s gone! Everyone’s happy. Let’s wait now for the next season. Will it be Iran? Lybia? Wherever it is, it’s fun to watch the news and sympathize the people out there, not even knowing well their history or social issues. In fact the question is how can anybody have an opinion about, or passion for some part of the world without visiting it even once? Oh yes, there’s Wikipedia, right?

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The best series in the whole competition, in my opinion. Whooper Swans © Stefano Unterthiner, 2010

Meanwhile on WPP site I found a photographer, who did a great job. Italian photographer Stefano Unterthiner’s excellent story on the whooper swan (which got the second place, of course). I honestly think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever seen. It told so well about the life of whooper swans. But wait, human beings have similar worries in life, right? Thank you, Stefano. But now, what do we have for the first prize? The oil spill in Mexican Gulf. But we have been hearing about it for almost a year no, right? What’s so outstanding about it? Photography? Hardly. News? No way. Oil spill itself? OK, we got it long time ago that it is a very bad thing. So what else? Our emotional bias. Or rather constant hunger for it. When the spill is gone (fortunately) we’ll pick, or somebody will pick for us, other emotional subject to observe from our comfy places. I think that the most of Egypt/Haiti/Lybia/Japan/Yemen subjects are just bread-and-butter. Of course photographers need to make money. But let’s do some quality swan photography after some money is made on civil wars, earthquakes and mutilated girls. Let’s do something uncommon, maybe then international competitions will become different too. In our world of camera mass-production we can afford to be picky.

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One thought on “Emotional Rescue

  1. Fair enough. I agree with most of what you say here but I do think you sold the photo of the Afghan girl a little short. To me the point here was in the importance of selection. It’s not the best photo artistically, but it was the perfect photo to choose to tell the story – at first glance she looks like a typical young woman, but you quickly notice the story, or at least the questions. Had the balance between emphasizing her universal features -a young woman in the prime of life – against her personal story not been so delicate, the photo would just be a portrait. Instead, it felt to me like a photo that respected the intelligence of the viewer and because of that, full of depth. I’m sure there were many other photos that were more visually dynamic, but what a breathtaking use of a classic portrait motif.

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