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photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context

Jodi Bieber has won the overall 2011 World Press Photo award for her portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan women disfigured in an act of punishment (above left). Bieber outlines her thoughts on making the photograph in a brief interview here. Any image selected from over 100,000 entries produced by 5,847 photographers is going to draw its fair share of advocates and detractors. Rather than passing comment on the particular merits of the award, I am interested in what this photograph says about the context of pictures, how their meaning is produced, and how we judge them.

As many have observed, Bieber’s photograph recalls Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 (above right). In her brilliant essay on Gula’s picture, Holly Edwards notes the original function of McCurry’s picture was to “epitomize the plight of refugees displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Since that time “the image has been republished frequently in diverse contexts, its meaning altered and augmented with each incarnation.”

It is revealing that a portrait can be so mobile and fluid. It is also revealing that two photographs similar in style can point to such different political situations: refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in the case of Gula’s picture, and the barbarity of the Taliban in the context of the US-led invasion in the case of Aisha’s.

The individual portrait is the most common photographic style in the representation of context. But the portrait (as I argued in my 2005 World Press Photo Sem Presser Lecture) more often than not decontextualises and depoliticises the situation being depicted, leaving it to accompanying captions, headlines and texts to temporarily anchor meaning.

Jodi Bieber (whom I have never met) was interviewed after my lecture and remarked: “What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.” This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” its form was beyond her control (see below left). At the moment it entered the public domain the image was no longer Bieber’s.

 

Focusing on the headline, Jim Johnson calls the Time cover propaganda and the World Press Photo award a category mistake. He provides an effective demonstration of how meaning is changed by associated text with an imaginary cover using the same photo with the headline “What Still Happened Despite Ten Years of Occupying Afghanistan” (above right).

Johnson’s most insightful comment is that the World Press Photo award has performed another decontextualisation and depoliticisation of the Beiber photograph. The award process has extracted the image from the political issues it became associated with, reconstituted the picture as a discrete object, and reattached it to Jodi Bieber as author.

World Press Photo focuses exclusively on pictures alone, and the jury never sees anything other than the photographs themselves when making decisions (though in the case of well-known images such as the Aisha portrait they will surely know what they are looking at).

That is a curious process for the World Press Photo award. Most of us in the viewing public encounter photographs in one context or another. We rarely if ever see them in isolation, devoid of contextual elements. Shouldn’t WPP somehow consider the way images are published and circulated? I am not suggesting that the organisation take political issues and interpretations into account when making their decision. But can we really judge photographs in isolation as discrete objects any more?

Reference:

Holly Edwards, “Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 75-92.

UPDATE 23/02/11: The Sunday Times in Johannesburg has an interview with Jodi Bieber in which she offers some very brief reflections on the use of her of photo. In it she says:

When the story broke in Time magazine, it was berserk. The headline was misleading and it flew all over the world, all over, in front of Obama, everyone. But it was a good thing, regardless of the headline…

There were some women who said I objectified Aisha by showing her in that way, but I want to go and tell them: ‘F**k you, you’re sitting in an armchair at a university and she hasn’t got a nose. Must I show her crying and without ears, too?’

I learnt a lot, because there wasn’t just one response. It depended on whether you’re right- or left-wing American, or a feminist. In South Africa, it was more about the photograph, because we have no association with the politics between America and Afghanistan. In the end, you just put your picture out there and you can’t determine the response or push it in any direction.

While the observation that ‘you can’t determine the response’ is correct and reinforces her quote used in the post, given the significance and prominence of the image it would have been good to have heard more about its use. Whether she said more that didn’t make the final write-up is something we can’t know.