This is the 57th World Press Photo of the Year, a photograph by John Stanmeyer (VII for National Geographic). Congratulations to the photographer!
As far as I can think back, the announcement of the winning photo has resulted in debates. Is this or is this not a good photo? Is this the best press photo of the year? Should something else have won, and if yes what?
The problem with awards like this one is that it’s impossible to make everybody happy at the same time. This is, in part, because many people have vastly different expectations of what the winning image should be. Just as an example, here’s Teju Cole’s:
Teju Cole wants it all. It has to be a vital story, and it has to be a great picture. What is a vital story? Can we all agree on that? And what is a great picture?
My idea of a vital story is probably different than Teju Cole’s or yours. I have some ideas what a great picture is, but, again, these ideas might be different than anyone else’s.
As a matter of fact, I know they are different. A few years ago, I asked a bunch of people exactly that question: What is a great picture? (to be precise I asked “What makes a great photo?”) Here are the answers.
OK then. So we essentially can’t agree on what a great picture is or how to define it if we’re asked to do it. We all have our ideas, and they’re all quite different.
For this very reason I don’t want to discuss whether or not the 57th World Press Photo of the Year is a great picture. The jury decided it is. You might agree - or not. But it really doesn’t make much sense to argue over what a great picture is. Instead, there is a lot to be gained from looking at other people’s great pictures and to try to see what they see.
The issue gets even more complex given it’s World Press Photo, and just like Cole, most people have some idea what a “vital” story - or possible the most vital story might be. Again, those ideas will differ vastly. We desperately need to be having debates over which stories actually matter and which ones don’t - the context of the World Press Photo award might not be the right time to do this.
But the expectations we bring to this picture - just like to any of the previous winners - are enormous. Here’s that one picture that needs to be the picture for a whole year. No photo can fulfill that expectation. That’s impossible.
What is more, no photograph can tell a story. No photograph can tell any story. All a photograph can do is to allude to aspects of a story. Cole’s hope is unfulfillable. It is based on an unrealistic expectation of what photographs are supposed to do.
Of course, you can convince yourself that there are photographs that do that, that tell a vital story. But you need to ask yourself the following: To what extent is what I think about the photograph based on the additional information I have around it (incl. its caption)?
It’s very, very hard to disentangle what we know about a photograph from what is actually in it from what that photograph makes us feel. It’s not impossible, though.
Stanmeyer’s photograph comes with a caption, which I decided not to reproduce (yet) for a reason. When looking at a photograph, we first need to be, well, looking at the photograph. What is in the photograph?
The photograph shows a number of figures against a bright light source in the sky. If that light were the sun we would probably expect a very different feel to this image - the sea in the background is mostly dark, so this looks like a night shot, with the moon serving as the light source.
Shooting into the light has the figures reduced to silhouettes, most of their defining features - in particular their faces - disappearing/abstracted. As far as I can tell from the picture, the figures are all male.
Four of the men are engaged in the same activity. They have one arm stretched out into the sky, holding something that emits a blue-whitish glow, an electronic device of sorts (as far as I know this colour of light is not produced by anything in nature).
If we look carefully, there is another man, the one furthest from the camera, who also appears to be holding some electronic device. His, however, is somewhere in front of his chest, casting a blueish light onto his face.
There electronic devices that people use this way, digital cameras and cell phones. The devices used by these men look more like cell phones.
So based on what is actually in the picture we have a photograph that shows a group of men holding up cell phones at night, somewhere on a beach. That’s what’s in the picture. Not more. Not less.
Here’s the caption: "26 February 2013, Djibouti City, Djibouti African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. Djibouti is a common stop-off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East."
Only a very small fraction of that caption is actually contained in the picture (“raising their phones”). The rest is added information. Mind you, this is an observation, not a criticism. This is, after all, how images are used in a news context. The caption essentially gives you the big story; the photograph gives you a small aspect of that story.
In the British Journal of Photography article about the winning photographs, Jillian Edelstein, a jury member of this year’s World Press Photo, is quoted as follows: "It’s a photo that is connected to so many other stories—it opens up discussions about technology, globalisation, migration, poverty, desperation, alienation, humanity." This is true, if - and only if - you know the full back story.
Another piece quotes Susie Linfield (also on the jury): "The man in the middle [of the shot] is depicted as almost heroic, it’s almost a Socialist-Realist-reaching towards the future way. For me, the image conveys a kind of hope and dignity. We also have the fact that they are trying to get a mobile phone signal from Somalia – it speaks so much to technology and globalisation. We are all connected…but even though they all have phones, they are still very isolated." Again, that extrapolates from what is in the picture and in the caption.
Crucially, “we are all connected” speaks strongly of what we, meaning the social-media-savvy citizens we are, are pre-occupied with.
It’s fine to read this all into the image plus caption. I don’t have a problem with that. But when we look at photographs, we have to be careful with how we treat them. We have to be aware of to what extent they say what we think they say, to what extent our ideas and/or ideologies (“we are all connected”) feed into them.
One of the ways to get around what we humans read into pictures is to ask the machines what they think. The above shows the first three rows of pictures selected by Google Image Search using the winning picture (you can see it included twice in the top left corner).
That Google algorithm does what it does perfectly well. The big question is what this tells us. If we look carefully, many of the other photographs are either related to technology or to music concerts. Both shouldn’t surprise us.
For a start, the light produced by the screens on cameras or cell phones is blueish. At the same time, for a while now, a green-blue tint has been applied to depictions of technology (this is part of the reason behind the aesthetic of many contemporary Hollywood movies).
Of course, concerts aren’t only blue - Google’s algorithm only picked the blue ones. But there is something that Google spotted.
These are the first three rows of picture in Google Image Search, looking for images of cell phones at concerts. So that is where the gesture of those silhouetted men in Stanmeyer’s photograph is so familiar from (at least for a Western audience).
As I said before, I don’t think it makes any sense to argue about whether this photograph deserved to win or whether another photograph should have won. It’s a very nice photograph, and I hope its visual appeal will make more people look at photography.
My main point is that this photograph (pretty much like all the previous winners) tells us something about what it depicts. Add the caption, and it tells us a lot more, a story we should be aware of. In addition to all of that, though, this photograph also tells us a lot about our own expectations, our own ideas of what press photographs should do.
It seems we expect press photographs to tell us “vital stories” (or at least help tell those stories); but we also seem to expect that the photographs relate to our own experiences. And there is nothing wrong with it, as long as we are aware of it.
In fact, if we indeed share so much with what is in the pictures - doesn’t that mean we should actually care a bit more about what we’re shown than we actually do?
I can think of a variety of reason why that’s not the case. But that’s really just opening Pandora’s box again - the many problems visual journalism has to deal with these days - and that’s for another day.
(image credit: photo © John Stanmeyer, USA, VII for National Geographic; caption: 26 February 2013, Djibouti City, Djibouti African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. Djibouti is a common stop-off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East)