This is not a show to browse. It begins with an unusually aggressive injunction: “In walking through this exhibition the viewer accepts a responsibility handed on by the photographers and the jury to learn, and we’re asked to do follow-up research.” I don’t believe I’ve ever read such a bluntly pragmatic statement of purpose in an exhibition before, and my first thought is: Excuse me? Followed immediately by: right on.
World Press Photo, a nonprofit organization founded in 1955, displays the winners of its annual press photography contest in a sweeping, globe-trotting show. At the Prague exhibition, visitors visibly reappraised what they saw multiple times. They craned to inspect details, read the placard, then stepped back to absorb the impact of the photograph in light of the sometimes brief, sometimes hefty, information offered.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art has spent the past three years renewing its commitment to contemporary art, with a particular emphasis on helping that art communicate as widely and with as little obstruction as possible. (The Museum’s new facility on State St. is slated to open in March). As students at the University, the medium of our abiding purpose (education) is extraordinarily varied, and the arts get their share. The WPP exhibit publicly and pointedly straddled education and art. It gave great food for thought on the charged relationship between what we see as art and what we see as information. It asked the viewer to take the energy to analyze what was really being shown.
It’s ripe for comparison to the institution of liberal arts education, where media and messages are so often mixed. We’re asked to consider how the disciplinary lens through which one views a single subject can change the task of our study entirely. As reported in the recent Daily article “Blending the old and new,” the University’s concerted efforts to remain at the forefront of liberal arts education depends on strengthening “‘connective tissues’ … between different cultures, between art and science, and between education and appreciation.” That article described the new construction on the UMMA building as a focused project toward that aim.
Print and web outlets send press photography into almost anyone’s field of vision. Even a lowly discarded front page lying on an empty cafeteria table can get its point across. This kind of art is a vessel for meaning, both an illustration and an ambassador. On paper, it encapsulates the tumultuous relationship that the liberal arts can have with each other.
WPP 08 brought that relationship to the forefront of its viewers’ minds. This was skillfully done: the masterful photography and its minimal accompanying text needed almost no help to floor the audience.
One prizewinning photograph is already ubiquitous: Ben Stirton’s image of a huge gorilla tied down to a makeshift stretcher of branches, supported on the shoulders of some 15 men making their way hurriedly through the neon underbrush of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The image’s ambiguity and intensity forced the question: What is going on?
Stirton’s shot won the first prize in the Contemporary Issues category, and though the image and its meaning had seared itself in my mind, I was surprised. Isn’t the best press photograph the kind that’s most, well, reporterly? But this wasn’t a rundown of the event — park rangers removing the body of an endangered animal from the jungle where it had been found dead, not killed for trade, but executed, likely by militia. (Gorillas have even been killed in ways that mimic executions during the Rwandan genocide.) It holds back categorical answers — if the gorilla is alive or dead, if the men are trappers or rescuers — but it sparked a question of such potency that the image stuck. The exhibit in its entirety (over 70 submissions were recognized), shows its reasons for selecting a photo like this one.
At the exhibition, WPP states its perspective in strikingly BS-free terms: “One wonders why some photojournalists spend time and energy telling us what we already know, in a style borrowed from another photographer.” We`re told that the jurors were wary of images that resembled past winners — not because imitation is vaguely dishonest, as I’d have guessed, but because it’s “a pointless journalistic exercise.” The organization prioritizes “the best photography of an issue, rather than the issue itself.” This perspective, anything but straightforward, is concerned with issues of presentation.
Viewers can buffer themselves against the gruesome reports of injustice to which they’re accustomed, and some photographers find smart sideways approaches to open their audience to their reporting. It’s one of the tasks art is best at: picking up where other forms of communication leave off.
Lorena Ross’s series on victims of sexual abuse in Spain links portraits of people who suffered abuse in the past with shots of a location devoid of human presence. A young woman “interfered with” by “someone close to the family” is paired with a tunnel-visioned shot of dead branches fallen on a forest floor. There’s an oppressive silence and panic to the airless shot of one branch lying across another.
Jeff Hutchens’s single for CNN (winner of a 2nd place prize for Nature) shows a polar bear lying, in a cuddly position, eyes closed, on a landscape of featureless ice, darkness creeping in the edges of the frame. A large dart sticks in his neck. My first reaction, of severe regret for the animal’s death, was turned around by the caption: the bear was sedated by a scientist. Journalistically, this is a brilliantly effective photograph. The viewer’s sense of action is reawakened after an initial shock with the grateful intensity of someone getting a second chance at a redemption they thought was lost (what better motivation to work than to lift that initial shock forever).
Benjamin Lowy’s series for the New York Times Magazine, of Iraqis being detained before being taken to prison, won second prize in the portrait series. That categorization seems pointed, for an issue partly about rights of the individual, and arrestingly deconstructs preconceptions of how news, and what news, is delivered. The blindfolded man appears indirectly sensual, the tones jewel-deep, the camera close, his lips parted.
WPP’s fantastic website (www.worldpressphoto.org) is well worth the time one could spend going through this year’s winners and the impressive archives. It’s not a stretch to call it inspiring.