World Press Photo Exhibition Horrifies and Informs

Another previously published story from my  archives.  This ran in the Budapest Times in October 2004.




Alison Boston

The winning images from the 47th World Press Photo Competition (2004) are not, for the most part, pretty pictures, nor do they tell a pretty story.  Don’t let that scare you away.  There are photos worth seeing that tell deeper stories than the daily news permits.

Take a close look at “Contemporary Issues” – a new category introduced this year.  Here you see images that speak of Nigerian women sold into European sex-slavery, or the disturbing photograph of a 15-year-old Afghan girl who self-immolated to avoid the wrath of her husband because she short-circuited the television he had saved months to buy.

These are just two of the stories selected from the 63,093 images submitted by 4, 176 professional photographers from 124 countries.  From those, the international jury somehow managed to choose over 400 photographs, from 62 photographers of 23 nationalities, and organize them into 10 theme categories.  217 of those winning photographs are now on display at the Néprajzi Museum.

And the winner is…Associated Press photographer, Jean-Marc Bouju’s “People in the News” image of a detained Iraqi man comforting his 4-year-old-son at a re-groupment center for POWs in Iraq.

Described by the jury as an image of compassion in the midst of war, one must know the story of the man and his son to fully appreciate the sentiment.  First, that the boy was permitted to stay with his father when he was arrested by U.S. soldiers; second that the father’s hands were unbound so that he could comfort his son.

But the compassion seems to end there, because the caption on the photo reads: ‘…it is not known what happened to the boy and his father’.

Bouju received a cash prize of 10,000 Euro at an awards ceremony in Amsterdam, then his photograph, along with all the other winning images, went to visit over 80 locations around the world.

Does this mean the World Press Photo Competition glamorizes the atrocities of war?  Or – as in the case of Ahmed Jadallah’s 1st prize image in “Spot News” – does it put a fresh face on old stories?

Jadallah captured the aftermath of the March 5th raid on the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip with his photo of a street littered with unidentified bodies.You can see the ragged edge of the bullet hole in the body lying in the foreground.  It looks a bit like a movie still.  But it’s real, and any illusion of glamour ends as the sad truth sinks in.

Other winners tell stories further removed, but none the less disturbing.  Noël Quidu’s 1st prize story “Spot News” brings us the sordid tale of Liberia’s civil war and the July, 2003 battle for control of the city.  We see women running with their babies tied to their backs.  Their brightly colored batik skirts, the same ones that have become fashionable among westerners, make a very different statement in this setting.  Most horrifying from this series is the image of one man holding another man’s disembodied head by the ears.  It gives another perspective to the recent beheading of Kenneth Biggley.

Some winning images draw our attention to the photographer, as much as to the story.  Carolyn Cole and Erik Refner both picked up two prizes each, and in both cases I am awed by the combination of technical excellence and artistic vision.

Cole won for 2 singles, “People in the News”.  Her 2nd prize photo freezes the living suffering of an Iraqi family in mid-scream, while her 3rd prize image shows the elegant peace in the lying to rest of suffering in a Liberian mass grave.

If Cole’s color images strike you like a bullet in the eye, Refner’s (3rd place story “People in the News”) black and white images of ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo creep into your soul like a stealthy stalker.  Unfortunately, some of the best shots from this series – a close up of a mother holding her baby, and a cyclist riding through a field of crosses – are not included in the exhibition.  An oversight on the part of secretary Stephen Mayes, who selected the images for the exhibition.

Far removed from the Congo and war, the World Press Photo Competition shows the range of its vision with a couple of stories in its “Daily Life” category.  First, by awarding Refner’s versatility with 2nd prize for his fun study of Swedish Rockabillies.  Just like his subject, these photos capture the feel of the rock’n’roll era.

Secondly, by demonstrating complete open-mindedness in their choice for 3rd prize “Daily Life”.  Here, Sandy Nicholson’s photos reflect activities and fetishes: “…of a more private suburban realm from Melbourne, Australia.”  A man in diapers.  A saran-wrapped woman.  A penis protruding from mummified man.

From sex to sports, and two new categories: “Action” and “Features”.  One can certainly appreciate the sharp shooting of 1st place “Action” winner Tim Clayton who caught Yannick Bru‘s head in the scrum at the Rugby World Cup, yet 2nd place winner, Al Bello, has my vote for technical skill and newsworthiness.  He shows a spray of glistening sweat coming off heavyweight boxing contender Michael Grant’s face when Dominick Guinn knocked him out in an Atlantic City fight.

But it’s the 2nd prize “Sports Feature” story, from Jonas Lindkvist of Sweden that speaks of victory, hope and determination in the pictures of Antoni Khadroui, bodybuilder in a wheel chair.

Perhaps the prettiest picture of all comes to us through the 3rd prize “Sports Feature” shot by Russian photographer Vladimir Vyatkin.  Here an underwater shot of a Moscow Synchronized Swimming School sparkles with sequined swimsuits in a kaleidoscopic grouping of swimmers.

The central image in Paul Nicklen’s 1st prize “Nature” story about Atlantic Salmon shows nature at its best: a pristine river in Iceland, reputed to have the best salmon in the world!  His underwater images show the life-cycle of this delicious fish – from spawning, to newly hatched eggs, to the amazing power of a full-grown adult.  But Nicklen also tells a sickening story of the pollution caused by salmon farming, and gives us a close-up of sea lice infesting the eye of a wild adult salmon.

Olivier Grunewald’s 2nd prize “Nature Stories” bring us some beauty from a relatively unknown part of nature: The Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia, complete with geysers, boiling lakes and active volcanoes.  Yet again, one of the best images in the series is absent from the exhibition: a stream tumbling over rocks; the white foam of the water looks like snow-dusted velvet.

“Portraits” 1st prize stories goes to Jan Banning of the Netherlands.  His Handelsblad Indian Bureaucrats speak of the country’s economy and working conditions.  The variety of work tables and office settings is remarkable.  One shows an office worker seated at a blue-cloth covered table in front of a wall of wooden cabinets, piled high with papers, while another shows a man seated behind an enormous, polished wooden table.

The 2nd prize “Portraits” story shot by Lene Esthave of Denmark gives us close-ups of power lifters’ grimaces at the World Championships, in Denmark. Where the images of war might have your stomach heaving with nausea, these photos will have it aching from laughing so hard!

Winning images in the Arts and Entertainment category are diverse. Sergey Maximishin’s photo of amateur actors having tea at a mental asylum offers an alternate to the Hollywood ideal.  There seems to be genuine gaiety and contentment in this troupe of actors afflicted with Down’s Syndrome.  Tim Clayton’s dancers at the bar is, by contrast, beautiful in its perfection.  Finally, Raúl Belinchón Hueso’s photos of gleaming metro stations in London, Paris and Madrid serve to remind us just how far Budapest has yet to go!

See them at the Néprajzi Museum, Budapest V., Kossuth Laos Ter. 12, daily 10:00-18:00, until November 14. You might want to check the website first:

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