I remember at some point during my teenage years I was watching a kids’ programme in which the protagonist (some kind of fox/girl hybrid if I remember correctly) decides she wants to become a photojournalist. She turns up at various disaster scenes and as houses burn down etc she’s happily snapping away and other pseudo-human animals lives are in danger… realising that she can’t simply do her job while people are dying she comes to her senses, throws the camera away, and does the right thing by helping rescue them.
I obviously took the moral of the story to heart because when I went to the World Press Photo Exibition in Krakow in 2008 and again in Barcelona in 2009 (currently on at the CCCB), I couldn’t help but recall the animated fox-girl would-be photographer who decided it was only right to lend a hand rather than passively chronicle people’s demise, no matter how news-worthy, for a paycheck…
It’s a very simplistic way of looking at things perhaps, but I can’t help thinking that maybe some of the photographers whose work was exhibited at the World Press awards should rent out this particular kids cartoon on DVD. In at least five or six of the photos I saw, I couldn’t help thinking – ‘what the fuck is the photographer doing… whilst this young girl gets beaten to death?’ Of course there is definitely a need for brave photographers to be involved in dangerous situations as objective bystanders and reporters, and each situation is different… more often than not no doubt it’s dangerous enough for a photographer to be getting valuable evidence of an atrocity unfolding, let alone taking on a group of armed thugs with nothing but a tripod to defend himself… but there was something horribly narcissistic about this exhibition. You could almost imagine the photographer of the bloodied and beaten guy, with a militiaman’s boot crushing his neck, closing in on the scene (to within a touching distance judging by the angle) and saying “oi mate, I know you’re about to die and that but can you just hold that expression for a moment longer, it will make a great shot… I’ll probably win a prize for that.”
I just found it hard to buy that so many of these artfully shot, carefully considered pictures were all taken by brave humanitarians desperate to expose the evils of the world to a privileged public. So much of it felt opportunistic exploiting of other people’s miseries to win plaudits and promote their own careers, with maybe a brief afterthought about what happened to the dismembered/bereaved/poverty stricken subjects of their photos. All of the shots went far beyond documentary, and it makes me nauseous to imagine the camera-wielders own reactions as they check what they’ve filmed at their comfortable hotels and high five one another and celebrate the artistic merit of what they’ve captured. Which, unbelievably, will later be further celebrated by an event that actually ranks these photos and bestows prizes – up to 10,000 euros I read on Reuters.
And I can’t exempt the audience either. Here we were – weyhey a free exhibition! – whiling away a Sunday afternoon looking at what is essentially art fabricated out of real human misery. The creation of something diverting and beautiful based on suffering.
Not of course that all of the photos were about deaths and beatings! There were plenty of great documentary pieces that didn’t raise any ethical alarm bells in my mind, and there was some also fantastic wildlife and sports photography. But with so many strong images from troubled parts of the world, a large chunk of the exhibition makes the visitor a kind of voyeur of pain and grief, portrayed by photographers whose motives I am not privy to… but somehow can’t trust. Not when documentary has become art, and prizes and money are at stake.
I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s opinions (please comment below), and this article (the story was told to me by two separate people at the exhibition, after I shared my reactions) is of interest…