Off into the deep end…


General Photography

I have been thinking a bit more about the various issues that I discussed in my earlier post about the World Press Photo (WPPh) winners. There are a bunch of very interesting issues, which all meet eventually, don’t they? It’s all coming down to what images mean or say and how. I don’t want to get too esoteric right now (that’s for another time), but here are some of the thoughts I had. Whether or not they make sense, I don’t know. (more)

First, if we assume that Jodi Bieber’s photograph of the young Afghan woman is propaganda or has been turned into a propaganda piece (in whatever way, let’s ignore how that might work): Why is it bad to give a WPPh award to a propaganda photo? I’m not being facetious here. What is more, is the distinction between a propaganda photo and a non-propaganda photo so clear and obvious?

I suppose we can all agree that propaganda is bad, but then again, once you start thinking about it things start to fall apart pretty quickly. The photograph created at this event obviously is a propaganda photo, as is this one. Or maybe they aren’t because all propaganda is bad. But that’s not how the word is defined:

“information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”
The real problem here seems to be that we think of good propaganda as PR and as something very different from propaganda. But it’s not.

In the context of the WPPh, it’s clearly not too helpful to say that only photographs that do bad propaganda should be ruled out, because who is to decide which is good and bad propaganda? The WPPh award is about photography, not politics (I know, I know, …).

And there is more: When we talk about the WPPh winners, there almost never are any distinctions made between aesthetic and content. Now, we could argue forever about aesthetic problems (“what’s a good photo?”), but adding content makes things even more confusing. Basically, what we’re doing is chiding the WPPh for doing an impossible job.

Part of the reason for that is that picking a single photo as the best news photo of some year is an absurd activity. A press photo is a photo used within a specific context, namely the news context. And it is understood and viewed as part of that context. Just like you cannot unsee the photo of the young Afghan woman, it is unlikely you will forget the way Time Magazine used the photograph (regardless whether you think it was tasteless/shameless or not). Once you see the photo again, that magazine cover will come into your mind.

In fact, the debate about all the recent WPPh (single image) winners to a large degree centered not so much on the photos, but instead on what they were used for or what they signified.

The obvious solution here would be to forget about picking a single photo, because plucking a photo out of a well-known context (where its meaning was defined) is like trying to get the cheese back out of a fully baked pizza.

Which means that instead of picking photos one would really want to pick stories, meaning the photograph along with the story around it, the story that defined large part - if not all - of the photo’s meaning. Of course, that would make selecting the best photo an even bigger nightmare - because now the jury would have to read stories and look at photos (easy for me to suggest since I’ll never be picked as a WPPh jury member).

We could (and will - photography people are opinionated) argue about the winners, but at least we would have better handles what to argue about. I suspect we would argue a little bit about aesthetic, in some cases even a lot (think the Damon Winter “Hipstamatic” war photos), and we would certainly argue a lot about content (politics).

If anything, that would make things for the photographers much easier who - we must not forget this - often have little or no say in how their images are being used.