Icon or cliché? Photojournalism and World Press Photo 2013

What do we – producers and consumers of photojournalism – expect from a photo in a journalistic context? New information? A shift in our perspective and an incentive to reflect upon the subject that is photographed? If that’s the case, then photojournalism should strive to break through clichés and stimulate us to review our superficial points of view.

Or is the sole intention to impact viewers to such an extent that they stay glued to the page longer and perhaps read the accompanying article? Is the informative element of the photo in a journalistic context a matter of minor importance and is its effect limited to an emotional one? This viewpoint seems to be prevalent in journalism – and slowly but surely it may have become the highest attainable goal in an industry where photos are used more and more often as an inexpensive way to break up the type page. The intended result, emotional turmoil, is then achieved by closely connecting with viewers’ prejudices and cliché thoughts by getting their attention in an unquestionable manner and telling them again unequivocally what they already know and think; photographed in the best manner possible and with the use of all the photographic help available, such as light and composition.

World Press Photo (WPP) – the international photojournalistic prize and therefore a good representative of the branch as a whole – invokes important questions regarding the use of the cliché in photojournalism. It seems, almost irrespective of who is in the jury, that a WPP winner needs to meet a certain norm. Is this an indication of the power of WPP’s tradition? The ideal winner (in all categories but especially when it concerns the first prize) is expected to be an icon. But what exactly constitutes a photographic icon? Is it not in fact a well-photographed cliché, an aesthetically excellent confirmation of our prejudice? It has all the appearances of it, if you look at many of the photos and visual stories within WPP – and within journalism as a whole.

This applies the strongest by far to WPP’s news categories, as 2013 was as conflict-ridden as previous years. This year Spot News features Gaza (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) three times and Syria is featured three times as well. In General News, Syria is also featured three times and again the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in an honourable mention) plus another area of conflict, Sudan. To conclude, we do find one western theme there, albeit also related to conflict: Paolo Pellegrin’s by now somewhat controversial photo series about a shady neighbourhood in Rochester, upstate New York.

What do these photos show us about these conflicts? What we seen last year from Libya we now see from Syria. What we seen last year – and many times before that from Gaza – we see again now. The same men and women (in their cliché’d roles), the same weapons, the same wounded and dead: visual archetypes (Martijn Kleppe speaks of generic iconic photographs or ‘tropes’*).  It’s all very poignant, that’s for sure, and vividly photographed by brave, inspired and professional photographers. But it is visualised and presented in such a way that the conflicts have become inter-changeable through the repitition of the photographed aspects and the comparable visual language.

The insistence on showing the victims almost propels the photos into the realm of propaganda: isn’t it terrible how the Palestinian or Syrian ‘people’ are suffering – just like the Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenites and Libyans before them: a classic oversimplification of how evil oppressors (Khadaffi, Assad, the state of Israel) oppress innocent people.
In addition, according to WPP’s news journalism, a conflict consists of a couple of fixed aspects: men waving or firing guns, and women in a caring or mourning role preferably. Wounded and dead also belong in the picture, usually surrounded by wailing women, or being dragged away by angrily screaming men, topped off by (certainly innocent) civilians trying to escape. Furthermore, there are visually spectacular bomb explosions and picturesque ruins ‘adorned’ with tiny human figures. In Palestine, but also previously in South-Africa just to give an example, we see men being tortured who are suspected of collaboration (do women not collaborate, or are they just not being caught?). Showing dead children is the ultimate emotional climax: how heartless are you if that doesn’t have an affect on you?

Am I being cynical? In general I’m not. Of course it’s all terrible and it’s not a plea on my behalf to stop showing the abuses that are going on in this world! However, the current approach within photojournalism reminds me of the carpenter who attempts to hammer a nail into a piece of timber but stubbornly keeps his thumb between the hammer and the nail: not only a painful but an ineffective act.
What are these photos supposed to accomplish? The photographers’ response is that we, the viewers sitting at home, have to see this: we need to be shaken out of our lethargic world. But actually why do we need to be shaken out of our lethargic world? The answer is that this can’t continue. Something has to be done. The world must step in! But do these photos make us think about what needs to be done and what intervention must be carried out? Do they lead to a carefully considered point of view? I’m afraid not.
This manner of representation does not spur us to reflect upon the specific conflict but instead guides us away from it by invoking associations with other but similar conflict photos, which results in us getting lost in a world of visual generalities.

The cliché’d approach is not limited to WPP’s news category: how do we feel about the umpteenth series about women who have been horribly disfigured by acid (and this time even a child, in Observed Portraits, 1st prize stories)? It’s terrible. It’s heart-wrenching. These images are emotionally alarming but intellectually reassuring at the same time because they confirm how we already view the world: those Iranians are shady characters.
Of course you become overwhelmed by a deep sense of pity when you see these photos – but then what? The mutilation is, according to the caption, attributed to a drug-addicted husband. In earlier photo series concerning acid disfigurations – I believe from the subcontinent – the captions attributed this to the pitiful position of women within their society. In the series about Afghanistan (Contemporary Issues, 2nd prize stories), a similar-looking disfiguration of a woman is a consequence of war, according to the title (“Life in War”). Like this, we as viewers don’t ever get a handle on the causes. In any case they seem to be quite diverse. So, do we come to different conclusions after viewing these images, or do we only end up feeling despondent and confused? Do these photos change our vision, the way we think and perhaps the way we act – even if it’s only how we vote? If the answer is ‘no’ then what are we but voyeurs? Is it not in fact photos that touch us in our hearts but fail to connect us to any tangible form of action that end up making us cynical?

WPP 2013 displays more examples of overused clichés, also outside the news categories. Salvadorian gang members (Daily Life, 3rd prize stories) of course look frightful with their tattoos and, as is to be expected, stare dejectedly off into the distance when they are behind bars. It’s as if the photographer is rooted in his own prejudices and serves them up faithfully to us. Like this, our world view remains clearly structured and therefore undisturbed.
More examples can be given, including a reference to the Christian iconography that is so popular with photographers – even if the photos concern an Islamic country such as Afghanistan.

The pinnacle of stereotyping is achieved when photos not only confirm our commonly held views but also back up our moral judgements. Take a look at the portrait of a 38-year old decrepit prostitute (Observed Portraits, 2nd prize singles).
The caption states: “Bonnie Cleo Andersen (38), mother of three, has been a sex-worker in Denmark since the age of 18. Prostitution is legal in Denmark. Bonnie works during the day in a small house in a village in the east of the country, then picks up her children after school to take them home to another village 15 km away. Her main hope is that they will have better lives than hers.
What thoughts does this conjure up in our mind? Is such an image of an old hooker not a stereotype in almost every country? Is there any point in showing us that prostitution leads to premature aging? Is that in fact so? I mean: do prostitutes grow older faster? If so, why? Can that be explained by a medical expert? Do we now have to devote ourselves to making prostitution punishable in Denmark so that her children will indeed get a better life?

Another example of operating from a moral high ground is the photo of a 15-year old crack user (Contemporary Issues, Honourable Mention singles). She is also shown to be prematurely aged and sad looking. The photo shows us clearly: drugs are bad for you! But does it actually not make more sense to show clearly why people, who undoubtedly are also aware of the risks – still use drugs? Would it not be more interesting and thought-provoking if we were to see the ecstasy for once, the pleasure or the comfort that comes from using this drug?

Happily, every now and then, in this same edition of WPP we see that there is also another road that can be taken: outside the news categories there is some room for a more open-minded view. The series about ‘camping prostitutes’ who have travelled from Nigeria to Italy (Daily Life, 2nd prize stories) also reminds us of other photos: those of the tents used by asylum seekers in the Calais area and those of traces in the grass (for example Katherine Wolkoff’sDeer Beds and Bart Michiels’ Waterloo 1815, The Fall of the Imperial Guard). However, in this case this works in an intriguing manner and the thought process is stimulated because the ‘rhyming’ photos are about completely different subjects and through those associations it prompts us to think in a different manner.

There are various other examples, such as the photo of a semi-blind albino girl (Staged Portraits, 3rd prize singles) in which the form beautifully covers the content: a dreamy image in white, with hair blowing across her eyes.

Surprisingly, even in WPP’s conflict categories we do find an example of a photo that questions issues that we regard as self-evident: the photo in which we see members of the Syrian opposition – in our (western) eyes we like to think of them as the good guys – torturing a man who is suspected of collaborating with the Assad regime (Spot News, 2nd prize singles). We can conclude from the fact that the tortured man was released after 48 hours that he appeared to be innocent. This photo shows us that we can’t always divide the world easily into categories like ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Such work could act as a launch pad for further substantive development within photojournalism, which goes beyond aiming for the emotional effect and instead focuses on stimulating the thought process. But these type of photos are the exception rather than the rule.
The question if there actually is a future for photojournalism of course partially revolves around the question of money. But as Neil Burgess writes: ‘Money is still around in newspapers, it’s just that it’s spent on other things.’
On the website from EPUK (Editorial Photographers United Kingdom &Ireland), Magnum photographer John Vink describes WPP as follows: “A place which year after year provides a rather predictable vision of the world which, in a sort of self-castigating or suicidal mode, fits perfectly in a dwindling and whining editorial market (…) Feeding the beast that will not feed you anymore. Perpetuating an ailing system.” ***

The photojournalism that WPP presents, especially in the news categories, is indeed a mirror of what there is to be seen in this languishing sector as a whole. If the content of photojournalism remains for the most part cliché-ridden, then its downfall can hardly be considered a loss.

Jan Banning:
I was a member of WPP’s Supervisory Board for four years and nowadays hold a seat on the Advisory Board.
In my new book (and electronic book) “Down and Out in the South,” with photographs of 42 homeless men and women in the US South, I eschewed caricaturizing depictions. I placed my subjects in a studio setting without their stereotypical belongings, focusing instead on their individuality — on who they are rather than what they are.