World Press Photo 2012

World Press Photo is an annual competition where press photos from around the world is judged in order to establish winners in a number of categories. The winning pictures are exhibited almost simultaneously in 45 countries around the world. This year there were more than 100,000 images submitted by more than 5,000 photographers, so the judges must have had their work cut out for them.

The exhibition was at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank in London. It’s a popular venue, so I had picked a Saturday afternoon to visit. Little did I know that they were hosting the graduation ceremony from University of Westminster on the same afternoon. So instead of a quiet contemplative visit, it was crowded by happy graduates and their friends and families. Why they had to have their portraits taken in the middle of a photography exhibition is beyond me, but live and let live.

I split my visit into three parts. First I walked around looking at each picture and reading the captions with context. After sitting down for a bit while trying to take it all in, I made a second pass to spend some more time with the images that had really made an impact. Finally, the third part was when I had gotten ready to leave and discovered that I had only seen the first half of the exhibition; the other half was at the opposite end of the foyer. So most of my observations are about the first half, focused on news stories. As simple as it sounds, lesson #1 has to be: Make sure to get an overview of the entire exhibition before deciding how to allocate time.

One clear conclusion after my first pass through the exhibition was that human interest wins. The common denominator for all the pictures exhibited (bar the ones in the Nature category which I hadn’t discovered at this time) was a very strong focus on people. People showing emotions. Impact on people.

The pictures that in particular drew my attention were

Jason & Elyssa

Phoographer Darcy Padilla got a honourable mention for his series of photographs showing HIV sufferer Jason with his daughter Elyssa. In this particular picture, Jason is clearly not feeling well; he is pinching the bridge of his nose and looking down with his eyes closed. Elyssa looks concerned at him. There is no special drama, so the viewer can assume it’s not unusual for her to see her father in a bad state. What draws me to the picture is the role reversal. It’s normally assumed that parents should look out for their children, but here it appears the other way around.

While Jason occupies a large part of the frame, his arm creates a strong line that quickly leads the viewer’s eye to Elyssa. She gazes at her father, which leads the eye back to Jason. The triangle created by them this way is so strong my eye keeps following it around and around, as the impact of the picture continously increases.

Harlem, New York, USA

Shot by first year photography student Tomasz Lazar, the picture shows a demonstrator being led away by the police. She is yelling loudly, but doesn’t appear to be distressed. It’s more defiance we see in her face. The police officers appear somewhat detached, as if this is an everyday occurence (which it probably was, given the picture was shot in Harlem during the peak of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement).

The black and white picture is mostly dark. The background is dark, as is the police officer’s blue uniforms and the protester’s top. As a result, her bright face, and the instantly recognisable triangular badges of the New York Police Department stands out. Both badges point towards her face which becomes the clear focal point.

It’s a very strong picture, speaking about the perceived unjustice.

Journalism is supposedly meant to be neutral; reporting facts and views from both sides in a conflict and laving it up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I don’t know how often the news live up to that ideal, and this picture is no different. It is clearly taking a political stance, by the way it shows a single woman being led away by two armed officers each towering a head over her.

Hanging in Iran

Ebrahim Noroozi won a second prize for his series of 12 images showing hangings in Iran. They are very graphic, leaving nothing to the imagination. We get up close and personal with a view of a man getting the noose put over his head, and a follow-up shot showing him dangling in the wind from a crane. But the image from the series that really captured me was this one, showing a huge crowd watching the hanging. The offender is not in the shot, so was it not for the caption and the context provided by the other pictures, this could just as easily be spectators watching a football match. And that is what gives the image its profound impact. The people do not appear to be watching a gruesome event. Many look detached, and the overall mood of the image is one of joy and happiness. This is examplified by a man smiling widely on the right-hand side of the picture. The fence keeping the crowd from moving forward leads the eye of the viewer directly to this man.

Drug Cartel’s War

This must be the most gruesome picture in the exhibition, showing two amputated legs neatly arranged around a decapitated head. A couple of black bin bags are on the pavement next to it. A group of police soldiers are standing around, presumable waiting for an ambulance (or garbage truck?) to come and clean up. The scene could fit perfectly into an episode of American crime drame Dexter.

There are several strong graphical elements in the picture to draw attention to the bodyparts. They’re laying in a trialge of sunshine on th ground; two pillars behind them point straight down to the face; and the group of police soldiers form a semi cirle around the bodyparts. It’s clear that photographer Pedro Pardo has taken time to not just snap a picture, but has carefully composed it for maximum impact.

Interrogation Room

The image shows a suspect in an Ukranian interrogation room having a pistol held against his head. We only see the arm of the man with the gun. Donald Weber got a first prize for his series of 12 images from the interrogation room.

The thing that made the strongest impact on me for this picture was the lack of impact it made. It’s obviously horrible that interrogations are conducted that way, and it raises serious doubt about the veracity of the results of the interrogations. Again, it appears to be a scene that belongs in a TV series, rather than in the annals of a police force. But as horrible as the situation is, my eyes had glazed over after watching the images from Acapulco and Libya earlier in the exhibition.

It is frightening how quickly we as news consumers get blaze and desensitized to human suffering. And maybe that is the real story in this photograph.

Scrum Half

Ray McManus’s image from an All-Ireland league rugby union match proves that strong emotions isn’t only part of war and destruction. 8 mud-covered players struggle for the ball in the rain, while the ref is watching from behind the group. You get a clear sense of determination and raw energy. Surprisingly (for me), I don’t sense aggression in the image.

Ray McManus obviously haven’t had any impact on how the players appear, and he also hasn’t had time to move or change his viewpoint. Despite that, the composition with a “frame” of players works wonderfully by framing the player who holds the ball. This is supported by the player on the left who draws attention to himself be leaning to the side, and then directing the attention back to the player with the ball courtesy of his gaze. A very strong image, made even more impressive by having had to be made in a split second while the action was contiuing on the pitch.

Pastoral

Alexander Gronsky’s series of Moscowites enjoying whatever rural patches they can find in the city’s sprawl is the last of my favourites. Whereas so many of the other pictures have shown people dealing with whatever is being thrown at them, be it war, crime, oppression, natural disasters, or just plain bad and luck and poor decisions, these 12 images show people accepting their environment and making the best of it. I’m sure Gronsky could have found a demonstration against industrialism and destruction of green areas to photograph, but instead he chose to show us how people turn the remains of a building site into a beach or go swimming in the river. On the image linked above, he is showing people having a picnic in a small patch of greenery next to the imposing cooling towers of a power plant.

Gronsky’s pictures emphasizes the human spirit in the pictures by contrasting it with the industrial and dehumanised buildings. On all the images the people are very small, completely overshadowed by towering buildings. And yet the message they give is one of hope and joy. In a way, it was the same overall message I took away from the exhibition: There are an alarming number of unplesant events going on around the world every day, but the exhibition showed more hope for mankind than despair.

Postscript

All the winning entries are available on the website http://www.worldpressphoto.org/ with background information and links to the individual photographer’s biographies and websites.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about photo journalism, and concluded that it dosn’t need to convey emotions in order to fulfil its journalistic brief. While that may still be true, it is clear from this exhibition that good photojournalism is good exactly because of its ability to convey emotions.

The exhibition pictures are obviously protected by copyright. In accordance with UK copyright rules for fair dealings, I made “notes” of the pictures I was most interested in by taking a photo of them and their corresponding captions. That worked really well as a way of reminding myself about not only the pictures, but also enabling me to look up the photographers and the back-stories on the internet afterwards.

I’m not convinced that fair dealings allows me to publish thumnail versions of them here, which is why each section header above is simply a hyperlink to the official world press photography organisation’s webpage for the relevant picture.

However, the setup of my website necessitates at least one picture in each post. So here is a shot of one of the stalls at the Southbank Christmas market just outside the Royal Festival Hall. Strolling around the market and enjoying a bratwurst and a serving of churros was a good way to end the day.

Southbank Christmas Market

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