Picture this - World Press Photo

This article is from 2008.

World Press Photo 2008

Photo: Tim Hetherington

From soldiers to skiers, featuring death and dresses, the World Press Photo exhibition captures life at its extremes. David Pollock views the cream of this year’s selection and discusses life through a lens

The World Press Photo exhibition represents the cream of entries for the annual awards of the same name. Founded in 1955 by Dutch photojournalists Kees Scherer and Bram Wisman, these awards are now the biggest of their type in the world, with more than 80,000 entries from 125 countries being judged every February by an expert team of photographers, picture editors and photo agency heads.

In the 12 months after the awards are made, various sets of photographs are displayed in 100 venues across the world, where they will be seen by more than two million people. This year’s 156-image display in Edinburgh - the third time the Scottish Parliament has hosted the exhibition - will hope to top last year’s attendance of 43,000, and in the process help us engage more fully with the way the world is presented.

Across ten distinct sections, the exhibition brings home the degree of nuance and vision - or brave opportunism - that’s needed to engage in world class reportage. ‘A photojournalist’s job is to tell stories but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job,’ says Femke van der Valk, project manager of World Press Photo in Amsterdam. ‘In the winner of our Spot News single image section [John Moore’s ‘Assassination of Benazir Bhutto’] you can see the photographer is so close to the assassination, to the explosion, that he’s in danger himself. The photograph is blurred, which shows the movement of the blast and the people around him.’

War, or at least proximity to conflict, is a common theme amidst many of the single shots and reportage series on display, not least in the winning image of World Press Photo of the Year, British photographer Tim Hetherington’s ‘American soldier resting at bunker, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan’ for Vanity Fair. ‘In this case, the photographer considers himself to be more of a communicator than simply a photographer,’ says van der Valk. ‘He was embedded with a group of soldiers in Afghanistan, and he really tried to get close to them; he lived with them over a long-term assignment of a couple of months. The photograph isn’t even sharp when you look closely at it, but he captures the complete exhaustion of the soldier. Our jury chair referred to the total exhaustion of conflict we feel in the Western world, the tiredness of being fed images of war. The photo has a symbolic meaning beyond simply this tired soldier.’

Is a good news photograph, though, one which tells its own story perfectly and without any need for reference, or should it fully contextualise the shot? The answer is both and neither, although the judges this year seemed to be most impressed by one particular type of shot. ‘The jury chose pictures that challenge you, that inspire you to stop and read what the story is about,’ notes van der Valk. ‘One photo by Yonathan Weitzman [the winner of the People in the News single shot award], for example, shows a dress hanging on barbed wire. You don’t know what’s going on or where it is, but this image leads you to read on.’

The dress itself belongs to a migrant African girl fleeing across the Egyptian border into Israel, and van der Valk also points out that familiar issues photographed in ways that had been seen before were ruled out early on. Shots like Weitzman’s, or Jean Revillard’s ‘Makeshift huts of immigrants, Calais, France’ (another depiction of forced migration with no one in it, this time of an empty hut near the ex-site of the Sangatte refugee centre) throw attention on subjects which are rarely discussed, or have at least been off the news agenda for a while. Even the relatively risk-free arena of sport throws up scenes of supreme daring. The Sports Action winner, Ivaylo Velev’s ‘Freeride competitor Phil Meier being chased by an avalanche’ shows the skier amidst a stunning scene, although how close to danger did the photographer have to be to get the shot?

Then other situations are fraught for different reasons. The winner of the Portraits Singles award is Platon, with perhaps the most famous shot in the whole show, a portrait of Vladimir Putin which graced the cover of Time, a steel-blue aura of cold authority surrounding his stern features. ‘Yeah, you can’t miss that one,’ says van der Valk. ‘It’s one of the first portraits Putin had posed for as President, and it really captures the power of the man. The photographer tells the story of waiting a long time for authorisation, then flying to Russia and waiting in his hotel room for eight days. When he arrived to take the picture he was searched for a couple of hours, then he had to wait for a couple more.’

When Putin finally arrived, the photographer had very little time to make a connection with him as a subject. ‘He remembered, though, that Putin had met Paul McCartney, and so he spoke to him about The Beatles, just to get him to relax and to get a really personal photograph of him. Yet still, Putin’s collar is perfectly straight, and you could get chills looking at those eyes. It’s a powerful picture.’

World Press Photo 08, The Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000, 8-30 Aug, free.

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