Already the World Press Photo of the Year 2012 is causing controversy. Critics are upset with the use of the Pietà. Not only are they saying, “Not again”, they are also noting that Christian imagery is being forced upon Arabic & Isalmic content. And so they should.
In Defence of This Year’s World Press Photo: An Image that is Complex and Conflicting.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Of course, the Pietà is there, of course it causes problems, but what about the other narratives and styles the photograph contains? There is something more unusual about the image. It has a different sensibility to the Renaissance style that people are claiming it to have.
First of all, the Christian imagery may be a clash with the content, but it doesn’t drag with it the rest of the baggage you would associate with religified images of suffering. The bare style, the off-centred framing of the pair: they stop this suffering becoming glorious or romantic. There’s something loose about it. This makes it stand out against other pieta-based images like this .
To add to this contrast, the aesthetic does not strike me as Renaissance. It seems modernist. It has a dreamlike, surreal quality that speaks of an inner psychology rupturing through to the surface. The faces, swallowed by darkness, the strangeness of the white-gloved hands, the muscular shapes of the jaw and arms: all add to an aesthetic that is more current and more interesting. The angles and shadows are almost cubist. It reminds me of a Francis Bacon portrait in it’s twisting expressiveness.
So what does the image tell us about the news story to which it pertains – which, at its widest, is the Arab Spring? First of all, this is clearly a personal image for a wider political context. The personal can often be reductive. Critics are anxious about the stereotypical presentation of the ‘Arab Woman’ – burkha clad, offering comfort to the man. The tension of this stereotype is there. This is indeed not a shot of the ways in which women engaged in and drove the revolution on the ground. On the other hand, the woman looks strong, her grip is fierce. She defines the man’s body. He is an exposed body, she is a force. This is an unusual dynamic and one which makes powerful the woman. Her grip conveys much about the bonds that tie people together and must be essential in retaining an identity in the middle of turmoil, trauma and revolution.
So is this slice of the personal reductive? I don’t think so. It’s an insight, a gripping and gripped moment. The body is political ground, and I do not think it is distressing or inaccurate to see these bodies as symbols of a wider national struggle. They have not become dislocated in ways that are glorifying or mystifying. These bodies mean something both about a presented moment and a wider movement and they do so in a conflicting and complex way. Not all is resolved about the identities of the figures but much is communicated. For me, this is an image that conjures up the struggles of gender and of the revolution. The caring role appears not as weak or passive: it is vital and powerful, but all is a sinuous strain on a bodily level and a societal level.
When we can recognise that the caring role does not have to be the secondary position, we can see that this image says more than the typical.
Of course I am not talking here of the politics of Photography Competitions, or what qualifies an images as ‘better’ than all the other images. I would merely like to say that this image has relevance and power, and that although on the first level it could be said to fall into stereotypes and willed Western prejudices, I think there are more subtle levels upon which to view this image. To see the other side of the argument, you can read this excellent piece . It’s worth considering all sides, and I am still intrigued to learn and think more.
Update: You can see some of my ideas and some other interesting points in this conversational piece on BagNews.