What can Samuel Aranda’s 2011 World Press Photo of the Year tell us about how we view photojournalism?
For this post I’m not interested in whether it deserved to win or didn’t deserve to win, or the details of what it means or what it doesn’t mean. Anyone who wins an award for one picture selected from one hundred thousand deserves our congratulations, and anyone who works in situations as difficult as Yemen deserves our respect.
Rather than dealing with the photograph itself, I want to focus on the subsequent debate about the photograph. I want to take a step back and ask: what does the conversation prompted by Aranda’s winning photograph tell us about the conventional way of understanding such images?
For Aranda, such debate is unlikely to be the issue. When asked by the British Journal of Photography if the Pieta-like form of the image was deliberate, he remarked:
It was not intentional…You know how it is in these situations – it was really tense and chaotic. In these situations, you just shoot photos. It is what it is. We’re just photographers. I consider myself just a worker. I just witness what is going on in front of me, and shoots photos. That’s it.
Aranda’s description of his modus operandi embodies one of the most treasured assumptions about photojournalism: that it is a window on the world, transparently witnessing a moment before the lens.
The production of an image, however, is just that: the production of an image. Reality is not copied by the camera, it takes on meaning through the whole apparatus of photographic practices that culminate in – but are not limited to – someone releasing the shutter. Photography is much more than what the photograph ‘is’. The meaning that results in part from the image is not limited to either details within the frame or the intentions/self-understanding of the photographer.
We can see that in debates like the very one prompted by the award for Aranda’s picture, a debate that Martijn Kleppe has curated at bit.ly. The fact that the New York Times (which first published Aranda’s picture) instantly cast his photograph in fine art terms as “painterly” shows how even the industry’s readings quickly move beyond naturalism to aesthetics. “Painterly” may be one of those oft-repeated and rather tiresome labels, but the Lens blog’s invocation of the idea should lay to rest the misleading notion that news pictures are somehow beyond aesthetics.
If you go through all the posts discussing Aranda’s photograph collected by Kleppe, the variety and richness of the interpretations is remarkable. People have understood it as a Christian icon, a 19th century orientalist painting, a sculptural form, a depoliticization of the Arab Spring, evidence of the hegemonic Western eye, a sign of a bloody conflict, a rendering of universal humanity, a personal moment of compassion, an affirmation of the strength of Islamic women, and an image whose beauty forces us to look.
This range of readings demonstrates neither a problem with the photograph nor a failure of criticism. To the contrary, it shows how photographs are polysemic and polyvalent – as part of their condition, they are inescapably open to multiple readings, and can often sustain different if not contradictory readings. The proliferation of clashing interpretations demonstrates the naturalist faith is untenable. If a photograph were just what it ‘is’ there would be nothing to discuss and the pictures’ public role would be minimal at best.
Robert Hariman is right when he says,
we need to see through symbols, but in both senses of the verb: to use them to see more than we might see otherwise, and to recognize and look past their limitations to see what they would distort or occlude.
The disparate readings of Aranda’s photograph, taken together, contradictions and all, are thus helping us see through symbols, in both senses of the verb.
The lesson from the debate about Aranda’s winning photograph is that even with press pictures we see through symbols. Such photographs are inescapably symbolic. We might think they illustrate the news through a simple process of depiction, but it is much more common that they function as symbolic markers. Indeed, the New York Times original publication of Aranda’s photograph is a case in point – it accompanied an October 2011 article that led with US drone strikes in Yemen even though the picture’s subject was injured by Yemeni government forces.
Nor is the symbolic nature of this picture a function of Western concerns or readings. If you consider closely the quoted statements of those Yemenis speaking approvingly about Aranda’s picture, they talk of how they, their country and their struggle have been and should be represented. In the words of the Yemeni blogger Affrah Nasser,
it sums up what the Yemeni nation and the rest of Arab (and non-Arab) revolutionary nations have gone through in pursuit of democracy and freedom.
It doesn’t get much more symbolic than that.
This photograph, then, is not just what it is.
And that opens up the way for thinking differently about the function of photojournalism, which is something I will write about in the future.
Photo: screenshot of http://www.worldpressphoto.org/, 20 February 2012.