The world of photojournalism has been slack-jawed at an image that captures both intense struggle and according to the New York Times, “the mood of a Renaissance painting.” It was so superior that its photographer, Spanish-born Samuel Aranda, was awarded the World Press Photo Contest’s 2011 photo of the year for it last week. Mr. Aranda is only the 55th winner of the prize in history.
The photo contest is universally known as the world’s premier international competition for photojournalists, and according to the World Press Photo, it “set[s] the standard for the profession.” The image is undoubtedly moving: A woman in a burka tenderly holds her male relative, wounded during Yemeni clashes against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The injured, shirtless subject, held by a female loved one, draws unmistakable parallels to the Pietà. Contest judge Manoocher Degati goes as far as to say: “It is easy to portray the aggressiveness of situations like these. This image shows the tenderness.” The Times even calls the war image “painterly.” Another judge, Nina Berman, says, “It is as if all of the events of the Arab Spring resulted in this single moment.”
By critic after critic, the injured man is hailed—but only as a work of art and a symbol of greater struggle. And perhaps this is the very problem.
Somehow the explanation behind the selection of this portrait has romanticized the subject into a symbol and an ornament. Yet what of the reality that caused this man such suffering? If this is the “standard” for photojournalism today, one must ask, where is our discussion of the news story here? The analysis of this particular photo, by the World Press and others, has been distressing because it seems to ignore its central issue: the violence in Yemen and its causes. Why do we see this photo and speak of its mood as opposed to its visceral reality?
The process behind this selection appears to prize artistry and symbolism over the actual news story, the very thing that distinguishes photojournalism from other photography in the first place. While we applaud the photographer for shedding light on the Yemeni face of the Arab Spring, the World Press’s rationale is flawed.