This photo is not just what it is: reading the World Press Photo debate

What can Samuel Aranda’s 2011 World Press Photo of the Year tell us about how we view photojournalism? What does the debate prompted by Aranda’s winning photograph tell us about the conventional way of understanding such images?

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 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, 20 February 2012.

12 replies on “This photo is not just what it is: reading the World Press Photo debate”

Hello David,

I really wonder if people see what the “symbols” distort. I’m afraid this aesthetic symbols are comfortable way of looking at subjects otherwise complex and painful. To me, this contradicts the very role of photojournalism.

It seems we are capable of sophisticated discussions of imagery and representation and yet are nearly blind to the construction of discourse. Discourse is murderous in a way that images can never be. Images are always somewhat evidential. Discourse is not bound to evidence in any way. It can be fantastic, surreal, fanciful, paranoid, delusional. It can invert power relations, or at least create the appearance that victims are aggressors, and aggressors victims. Up is down, and down is up. For a topical example, see the construction of Iran as a nuclear threat (without evidence of a nuclear threat).

With discourse, it seems the same ‘window on the world’ ideas of transparent apprehension is operational, as is the unacknowledged reliance on symbols. In fact, it’s not an unreasonable hypothesis to suggest that defending from invasion is in the first instance, literally just defending from invasion – where invading is entirely a symbolic act.

I don’t really mean to oppose image and text in any fundamental way. I am simply trying to make sense of a world where someone like Derrida can reasonably claim to be trying to make another holocaust impossible – and this blog post about news imagery can exist – at the same time as politicians and news media blindly construct and follow unselfconscious, highly symbolic, delusional and paranoid narratives of good and evil, war and terror; choosing death for millions of families over a matter of simple, self induced, mass hallucinations. It’s mind blowing! It’s got so bad – I think someone should say something.

Excellent post, David. Sums up perfectly the feeling I had when encountering this image of how much is “going on”, to put it crudely, on different affective registers. For example, the “noise” emanating from this image is, for me, almost deafening, despite what might be a conventional interpretation of sedateness, momentary calm etc…

The “sound” of the debate surrounding the picture though, as you rightly point out though, seems to have become trapped in an almost hushed conversation about the nature of certain kinds of representations, gazes and modes of Western spectatorship.

Hi David,

I am an economist working in Africa.
I am grateful to your blog. It teachs us how to use all media available to expose the injustices and conflicts in poor countries.
The Aranda´s photo, and others similar, show that the reality of poverty and exploitation can not be hiden behind trousands of academic and Economics papers produced in the rich countries to reinforce the staus quo.
AVANTE, David.

Nelio de Oliveira

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