One sign of a healthy public art is that people argue about it. Photojournalism appears to very healthy, as once again the World Press Photo Awards are provoking discussion. As is happens, an earlier post at this blog was pulled into the fray. Back on October 24, 2011 I wrote about this image, which recently received the Photo of the Year award.
I had raised the issue of how one might come to terms with seeing the image through the cultural lens of Christian iconography: by seeing the outline of the pieta, one’s response could be both emotionally true and otherwise distorted. After the award was announced, Michael Shaw at BAGnewsNotes prompted renewed discussion, summarizing my post along with commentary by another BAG contributor, Madeleine Corcoran. The comments that followed expanded the discussion further, including an entry by one of the contest judges, Nina Berman. At the same time (a day earlier, actually), Jim Johnson voiced his “disappointment” with the selection, arguing that it was derivative not only with regard to the pieta but also within the history of photography, and that it depoliticized the Arab Spring, reinforced traditional gender roles, and interfered with understanding the complex politics of modern Islam. Jim provoked a dozen comments, and once again Nina weighed in. On the same day, the New York Times Lens Blog started out with a celebration of the selection (and quoted Nina), but the discussion there soon turned up some of the same issues. And over at Conscientious, Joerg Colberg added to the critique, pointing out that reliance on conventional iconography makes it too easy to project our own beliefs–and, with that, our military forces.
Joerg also points out that one solution to the problem is increased visual literacy, which is precisely what each of these blogs is trying to provide.
Photograph by Samuel Aranda/New York Times.
Update: The debate is curated much more thoroughly at bitly.