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Reading (Winning) Pictures

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When I was in college, I got a few semesters of photojournalism classes. But back then, it was only about how to operate cameras, how to developed the film in dark rooms (which I still cant do by myself until today, for I consider me as a digital kid), and what does one set of aperture makes different effects in image’s depth of field, comparing to another set. They never taught us to read pictures. It is the internet that offers -sort of- unlimited communication to see and read what others have to say and think, even if they are from another part of the earth, which finally gives me an understanding, that most of the best images of all times, are more than meets the eye. And that you have to read in to it.

Who have the rights to claimed a picture as THE BEST picture in the world? Well, when it comes to photojournalism, one of the most acknowledged group of people who are granted such rights, would the the members of the jury in World Press Photo. The annual photo competition that involves submission from thousands of photojournalist around the globe. I only entered the competition once, knowing that I couldn’t possibly win any category, but at least, I can get a copy of the book showcasing all the winning pictures. –pathetic, but true–

I still dont think I have enough knowledge to bare my own opinion as I am still learning to read pictures. But since every pictures winning the World Press Photo always raised such controversy, I would like to share some of “the pros” (pros as in professionals, sadly not pro to the jury’s verdict) thoughts and comments I have read in a few blogs and forums. (thanks to twitter and google to make it easier for me to find these)

Below is a shared opinion about World Press Photo winning picture, by Oscar Motuloh, one of the most respectable photojournalist of all times, here in Indonesia, also a curator in Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara (Antara Photo Journalism Gallery). — it’s a translation – which I tried not to reduce the meaning :

Photo of The Year 2011 – World Press Photo version


Members of the jury of the most prestigious photo awarding in photojournalism, World Press Photo, in its 55th annual events took place at its headquarters in Amsterdam, Friday (10/2), declared a picture by Samuel Aranda, a Corbis contributor from Catalunya, as the best picture or World Press Photo of The Year 2011. The picture taken at a field hospital in Sanaa (Oct 15, 2011), showing a woman wearing black burqa holds a body of a man (her relatives) who was injured in a big scale demonstration against Yemen government ran by the President Ali Abdullah Saleh which then fled to US. It is a piece of simple photojournalism work, yet contains a deep humanity meaning. The image itself is one of the images taken by Aranda during his assignment for the New York Times.

A woman holding a wounded relative during protests against president Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen October 15, 2011. Photograph © Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Aranda’s work is a metaphor which raised in a form inspired by a famous sculpture during Renaissance era called “Pieta” (1498 – 1499). It was a masterpiece by Michaelangelo Di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) which now hang in a corner of St. Peter Basilica, in Vatican. This famous work of art which carved in Carrara marbles, depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion in Golgota. La Pieta was made as a monument in French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres’ tombstone.

photo copied from website

Michaelangelo’s Pieta has inspired a number of photojournalism works, long before Aranda took that winning picture in Sanaa. One of the most recognized was Eugene Smith’s when he made an essay about mercury poisoning in Minamata which showing Tomoki Eumura who was helpless from suffering the Minamata disease and being bathe by her mother, Ryoko. The picture itself later on known as the Minamata Pieta.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath (Minamata, 1972). Photograph © W. Eugene Smith.

another example of picture with resemblance of Pieta, A boy experiencing severe pain from TB meningitis is comforted by his mother at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Svay Rieng, Cambodia. Family members provide much of the personal care at hospitals in the developing world. Photograph & Caption © James Nachtwey/VII.

Even though Aranda’s picture wasnt showing the expression of the woman, for she was hidden under the black burqa, nevertheless, her two hands holding the weak victim can still strongly showing compassion. Which is the basic of humanity itself. Also a representation of a struggle made by the weak. A fight from the heart, which spread fast as a form of revolution in the Middle East, which called by the term, “Arab Spring”.

One of the WPP jury, Koyo Kouoh said,  “It is a photo that speaks for the entire region. It stands for Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, for all that happened in the Arab Spring. But it shows a private, intimate side of what went on. And it shows the role that women played, not only as care-givers, but as active people in the movement.” Mean while, the jury Chairman, Aidan Sullivan added, “The winning photo shows a poignant, compassionate moment, the human consequence of an enormous event, an event that is still going on. We might never know who this woman is, cradling an injured relative, 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.”

Maybe Sullivan was right, but the truth is, for the people in the “East” which are “emotionally closer” with the domino effect erupted in the Middle East, Aranda’s picture is a symbol of a fight against arbitrariness, people who are fed up of endless corruption and the government’s negligence to its people who needs to keep on crawling to reach justice.

Aranda’s picture won the first place in People in the News category, and with it also selected by the international members of the jury (of 19 juries with Vice President Photo Assignment at Getty Images as the Chairman) as the Photo of The Year, means it represent the subjectivity of the members of the jury which practically can be concluded as a representation of testimony and voice of photojournalists around the world. Statistically, this year, there were 57 photojournalists from 24 countries (Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Iran, Irlandia, Italia, Jepang, Mexico, Belanda, Norway, Polandia, Rusia, Afsel, Spanyol, Sweden, England dan US) who won the contest’s nine categories. They are selected from 5,247 photojournalists representing 124 countries, with 101,254 works which viewed by the jury in 13 days.

Again, Aranda’s work is a metaphor of strength of the weak people. An image that reminds us to the anti violent protest by Mahatma Gandhi, but also brings memory to such nightmares of violence against humanity which continue to erupt in Nigeria, and several places around the globe, and also in the corners of Indonesia. The spirit raised from Aranda’s picture would be some sort of a light that lit the world’s civilization which always stained by blood and endless anger. The picture clearly spread a tranquility which as if offered by a woman’s graceful touch and a form of true meaning of life. Because the soul is a blow of God’s spirit and life itself is God’s creation, thus it needs to be honored by mankind, no matter what his faith and ideology is.

Regarding to my lack skill in reading pictures, I found some blogs that is not as “approve” as Oscar is, with the WPP juries’ decision. for example, is a response of another opinion by two contributors of the website which made when the picture itself first appeared in New York Times in October 2011. Interestingly, it argues about the Burqa (a symbol of muslim women in Arab) and how it is related to Pieta, which is a form of Christianity work of art. As I quote ;

The Christian imagery may clash with the content, but it doesn’t drag with it the rest of the baggage you would associate with “religified” images of suffering. The bare style, the off-centered framing of the pair stop this suffering from becoming glorious or romantic. There’s something loose about it. To add to this contrast, the aesthetic is modernist. It has a dreamlike, surreal quality that speaks of an inner psychology rupturing through to the surface. The faces, swallowed by darkness, the strangeness of the white-gloved hands, the muscular shapes of the jaw and arms: it is an aesthetic that is current and interesting. The angles and shadows are almost cubist. It reminds me of a Francis Bacon portrait in its twisting expressiveness.

Another blog ( still relate it to such thing called complex politics of Islam. Maybe they considered it as a part of the Arab Spring.

Finally, how does this image encourage “understanding” of the complex politics of Islam? Not only does it reduce politics to the personal, it does that by assimilating the stereotypical burka-clad woman to deeply Christian iconography. We don’t even get universal humanism here. We here in the west are encouraged not to appreciate the realities and particularities of another world. Instead we are encouraged to see others as essentially just like ‘we Christians.’

IMO as a muslim, and a photographer, and even as Indonesian (the so called most populated muslim country), my tiny – simple mind dont even bother with the fact that a picture taken in the Middle East, showing a portrait that looks similar with an art work by a Christian made centuries ago. Inspirations can come from anything. When I read an interview with Samuel Aranda in , I cant even spot any remarks that showing he has the whole intention to do or truly being inspired by Michaelangelo’s La Pieta, which means Pity. He only stated,

“I got back to my place and I saw the photo in the screen and I was like, ‘Wow, The woman is not just crying. It was something more. You can feel that the woman is really strong.”

He was simply overwhelmed with what happen there, and shot a picture that from his point of view, can represent what he was seeing. The beauty of sadness, and a hidden message that he believed was there as he took the picture. And it just happens to have resemblance or have “the Pieta” moods.

Another blog with a different point of view, which I think is more interesting is not about the picture, but more to criticize the juries decision to make Aranda’s picture as The World Press Photo of The Year 2011. It sarcastically writes WPP as Western Press Photo and it’s one of my favorite blog : 

So we have a problem, a problem that has actually increased over the past few years. We have seen a great many photographers going to remote places, taking photographs. We have seen the news media, especially online, using more and more images to present events. But we have not seen any efforts to use these images to educate viewers what they are actually looking at. For this flood of images in the news to really make sense – to tell us more about the world – we need more context, we need better explanations, and we also need an increased visual literacy. We need to learn how to question images, to ask what we are actually looking at.

Funny thing that I found in the second link I mentioned above, the politicstheoryphotography blog, was in the comment section. One of the WPP jury, Nina Berman, actually commented,

I very much respect the comments on this blog. As a WPP jury member this year, I’d be curious to know which image the blog’s author, or any other commentators would have preferred and why.

Whoaaa… the comments are good reads as well though. And the reply for her was,

In all due respect, I think this is an ill-considered attempt to shift the burden of argument. Nothing I said suggests that the jury task is not enormous. But neither was I party to that enterprise. Nor were any of the commenters here. That said, Tom White offers an example in his opening comment above. That image, which I too find quite powerful, appeared along side of Aranda’s in the NY TIMES ‘year in photos’ spread. It suffers from none of the problems I point out in the post. I laid out what seem to me (despite disagreements from others) seem like quite reasonable qualms about the jury’s selection.

And the most interesting comment, in that same blog would be ;

Of course, the WPP is free to select any jurors that it pleases. But it should stop pretending that their collective wisdom represent some sort of universal standard of photographic excellence. In a world where the economic, political, and cultural center-of-gravity is rapidly shifting away from the West, the WPP’s insistence on using the word “World” to describe itself is looking decidedly provincial.

Hmm.. good debate is when we all agreed to disagree on something. Including when it comes to read pictures. The winning pictures.  🙂


Written by nickmatulhuda

February 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm

5 Responses

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  1. frankly, i knew nothing about michaelangelo’s pieta before i read some debates of this award winning photo. maybe because i am moslem, or i live in the east, or simply because i never graduate art. but i quite agree with nina berman, “Human beings hold each other in universal ways regardless of where they live or what they believe and have been doing so long before the Pieta.” in that sense, i could understand why the WPPH’s juries choosed this one as “best picture of the year”.

    2011 is the year of protesters! we could easily find the pictures of people’s struggling againts endless corruption, fighting in the name of freedom, spread across internet. we could see a rebel was setting a rocket or the khadafi’s death. Time magazine did a good job by publishing impressive portrait series called The Protester.

    but to win a award like this, good is not enough – you MUST enter to win (though, not all who enter can be the winner). if you’re not enter, so how could possibly your picture’s gonna be the winner? in that case, how could possible people could see alternative images of the east, that slipped from those western’s eyes? how could possibly people could see the picture of active rule played by the women? i remember my friend once asked me why those kind of photojournalism images are mostly dominated by images of suffering, not happiness.

    but then, it’s the matter of choice. there’s no requirements for any photojournalist of submitting their works to award nomination. if a picture can move people to do something for the better living, even for only theirselves, that what a good picture is. it doesn’t matter if the picture win such an award like “the best picture of the year” or not.

    ps: anyway, did you submit your photos to this award nominations? 😉


    February 13, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    • For me, photo contests merely just a way for photographers to be acknowledged by their colleagues. If it is exhibited, then the coverage of the picture alone can help spreading the message they want to share, to a larger audience. When it comes to World Press Photo best selections, I think we just gonna have to learn more and more how a picture can win category A, B or C. Especially now that the WPP website also gives more specific data about the winning pic. Its always fun to watch, and learn. And no, I didnt submit any photos to this award nomination. Partly because I havent produce any meaningful pictures that I love so much, that I would want to present to the world’s eye. Sad though..

      Thanks for your comment, dear. 🙂


      February 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

  2. Western Press Photo. JC is right.

    Martin Egter van Wissekerke

    February 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm

  3. Oh BTW, western photography schools such as the Belgian art academy of Hasselt where I’ve gone through, has indeed taught us to read pictures from different cultural perspectives, besides their strict focus on craftmanship.

    Martin Egter van Wissekerke

    February 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    • Perfect! Exactly what I need! A response from a European who study photography (including on how to read pix) and actually have Asian blood! West mind, East soul. 😉 That is we put people in boxes according to how a compass works..


      February 14, 2012 at 6:45 pm

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