The World Press Photo of the Year 2011 was announced a few days ago, and already many blogs and opinion leaders in the photographic community have had their say on the image.
From what I have read, heard, and seen the common thread is that World Press Photo has yet again awarded an iconic image, this time resembling a pieta. There is a lack of context in this image, it only refers to Western iconography, it is too beautiful to depict such misery, and all in all it is not an image really worthy of such acclaim.
Personally, I think this image rightly won the World Press Photo of the Year 2011: it shows the power and at the same the limits of photography as a means of communication.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: indeed, as I am a Western man, with a Christian background (as most people born and raised in Europe) I can only look at this image with my own eyes, and I see beauty: strong matching colours, a convincing composition, and a direct reference to Christian iconography. The image attracts my attention: the white glove holding on to the man’s neck is the highest contrasted point in the image, and directs my eye directly to where the man and the woman touch each other most intimately. The direction of the man’s left arm gives the images a dynamic: it leads the eye down to the bottom left, where the woman’s left hand glove drives our eye back to the right arm of the man, which again moves up to the first point I saw: the white-gloved hand grasping the neck. The beauty invites me into the image, makes me want to look at it, contemplate it. Here is a photographer at work who has control over the medium, and does not hide behind intellectual concepts, but simply creates an aesthetically convincing image.
Beyond this circular dynamism, I find several strong elements in the frame: the woman’s unseen eye, but visible in the small crack of her veil, the intriguing tattoo on the man’s arm, the expensive looking handbag, the other people present on the left and the right of the man, providing visual support as shadows but also giving some context to as where this scene is taking place.
Its reference to a pieta is clear, and makes the impact of the image even stronger. The Roman Catholic church for better or worse has had a decisive influence on all visual communication present in our media. Whether one likes it or not, photographs that refer to Christian iconography are effective, and communicate strongly in a large part of our world: namely that with a Christian background. It excludes important and large parts of our world, indeed, but who said photography had to be universal? And again: it is not only the pieta-link that makes this images strong.
Does the image tell the entire story of what is now known as the Arab Spring? Does it give context to what has been happening in Yemen? It obviously does not: but can a single photograph ever provide context? Can it ever effectively explain a multi-layered complex situation as the public uprising in a county such as Yemen?
Photography as a medium can be very powerful: the still image allows for contemplation, it can refer to cultural and visual traditions, and as a representation of reality it forces the viewer to think about the depiction and its meaning. As such, a successful photograph can evoke emotions, and can perhaps even explain something basic about a certain situation, as it refers to memory, and cultural, and historical situations.
But a photograph cannot and does not provide context, it cannot explain a situation, it does not show reality, a photograph does not say more than a 1000 words. A successful photograph creates order in chaos: it makes us contemplate a moment in time. The emotions you feel may need 1000 words to express them, but the photograph can ususally be explained more quickly and easier.
So, why do I think the photograph by Samuel Aranda is a worthy winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2011 Award? Because its beauty forces the viewer to look closer to what is happening, it shows an intimate moment between two people, and it invites the viewer to read the caption. The caption then provides the context essential to a fuller understanding of the situation, and the story, actually one of the most important stories of 2011. The references that it makes to an existing visual tradition renders the impact even stronger to a large part of our world.