Photojournalism Meets Fine Art

A catamaran perched precariously atop a two-story building. A Ukrainian prostitute smoking recumbently while awaiting her next client. A wild leopard lunging toward a guard preparing to subdue it.

Scenes from a strange nature documentary/porno mash-up? Could be, but these are also some of the real-life moments captured in the images chosen as winners in this year’s World Press Photo Contest.

This year, more than 100,000 photos were submitted from upwards of 5,000 photographers representing 124 nations for judgment in the competition, now in its 55th year. The jury, whose members change yearly, was chaired by Aidan Sullivan of Getty Images.

While shocking scenes from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami — as well as other episodes of intense violence and human suffering — pervaded the award list, the expert handiwork of a Spaniard amid the uprisings in Yemen quietly dominated.

Samuel Aranda’s Photo of the Year depicts a veiled woman holding a wounded male relative inside a mosque being used as a field hospital after demonstrators protesting protesting the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh clashed with government forces in Sanaa, Yemen. He shot it while on assignment with the New York Times last fall.

One invariably asks in such a contest, which encompasses scores of top-notch works of photojournalism so widely varied in location, subject and style: What makes the winner so special? The answer is threefold — relevance, ubiquity and artistry.

The Arab Spring will no doubt be classified as one of the defining social and political events of 2011, and likely the decade. Although Aranda’s photo was taken in Yemen, it could have come from any number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria.

The image brings to the fore the realities of waging a truly populist uprising in a region accustomed to the rule of ruthless dictators and detached royal families. By highlighting the human costs, it provides a more truthful perspective to those tempted to glorify or diminish the efforts of the leaders of these movements.

“We might never know who this woman is, cradling an injured relative,” Sullivan said, “but together they become a living image of the courage of ordinary people that helped create an important chapter in the history of the Middle East.”

The anonymity Sullivan mentions adds another layer of meaning to the photo. Since the face of neither figure can be identified, the man and woman are nobody and everybody at the same time. They are a symbol of the many thousands, perhaps millions, of families in the region who have endured tremendous suffering as a result of a loved one confronting injustice.

The woman stands for women everywhere who are not permitted to show their faces in public, let alone take part in the struggle (though some have), yet bear the heavy burden of caring for their families as widows when their husbands are killed. The man represent all men who have felt compelled to take drastic action to improve the quality of life for their families — since dangerous acts of defiance are about all that can be done to make an impact in countries rife with abuses of power.

Although there is nothing pretty about bloodshed in actuality, the photo itself conveys a sort of tragic beauty. Despite its troubling subject matter, it embodies the aloof, almost serene mood of a Renaissance painting. And one cannot help but notice the eerie similarities to Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Aranda most certainly snapped this photo hurriedly and in perilous circumstances. But based on its near-perfect lighting and composition, one would think it had been carefully planned.

His photo may not have the shock value of some of the other images honored in the World Press Photo Contest, but Aranda’s work is memorable on a deeper level. One can foresee it being studied in journalism, political science and art history classes for many years to come.

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