Terrible Beauty: A Critique by Nic Dunlop

Nic Dunlop

Wed Jun 26 2024

Terrible Beauty: A Critique by Nic Dunlop

Having viewed this year's World Press Photo competition, I no longer understand what constitutes photojournalism. The same could be said of the World Press.

A Palestinian woman holds the body of her dead niece Photo by Mohammed Salem

The photograph that won this year's World Press Photo competition is an image of profound loss and grief. Taken in Gaza ten days after the attack on Israel, it shows a Palestinian woman, Inas Abu Maamar, cradling the dead body of her five-year-old niece, Saly. It was taken by Mohammed Salem of Reuters and is, without doubt, a deserved winner of the competition. The photo is a distillation of a larger horror, holding a strong aesthetic that brands itself on the imagination. It is a hard image to forget.

But it is also mute and faceless. Compared with the many images from Gaza that appear daily on our social media feeds, of babies being pulled out of rubble, of decomposing bodies being dragged from mass graves, or drone footage of the targeting of civilians, this is a far less shocking image of the assault on Gaza.

After the winner was announced by the World Press Photo, a photographer friend - a judge for the competition - drew my attention to another image taken by Mohammed Salem. It depicts the same heart-wrenching scene and is virtually identical. But in this frame, Inas Abu Maamar has momentarily looked up. The depth of her torment is revealed for the world to see. She is no longer anonymous or mute.

A Palestinian woman showing her face holds the body of her dead niece Photo by Mohammed Salem

Unlike the winning frame, it is powerful because of its urgency and pathos. It is deeply uncomfortable to look at; private pain made public. And one feels almost predatory looking at it. But this is precisely why this is such a powerful photograph. And that is the point. It is both emotionally demanding and aesthetically strong; two central components that make a great photograph.

On first viewing, photographs appear to offer a single truth. But, on closer inspection and with a critical eye, they contain multiple truths. And key amongst those truths is the existence of two apparent opposites in a single frame; beauty and horror. For me, this is the paradox that lies at the heart of photojournalism's enduring fascination; the depiction of violence, or difficult subjects, in a compelling and - for want of a better term - beautiful way. Mohammed Salem's photographs are good examples of that.

"What struck me about so many of the other images in this year's competition, and across its social media, was how aesthetically weak they were.”

The winning photograph was in the tradition of professional photojournalism the World Press Photo competition is known for. But what struck me about so many of the other images in this year's competition, and across its social media, was how aesthetically weak they were. I had difficulty in understanding why they were there at all.

There was a lack of coherence across the competition. Much of it could fit almost every photographic category that exists from photojournalism to lifestyle, to art and studio photography to the conceptual. This crossover of disciplines can be exciting. But with so many kinds of photography represented in the competition it is also confusing.

For example, the winner of the Open Format category for Europe ('War Is Personal') was a website using photographs, sketches, smart phone messaging and even music. The photographs were largely conceptual and were not strong enough to stand on their own. Indeed, the World Press Photo website blurb admitted as much saying the photographer's multidisciplinary approach allows her 'to inject more emotion and symbolism than photographs might convey on their own.' What this suggests is a lack of understanding of photography as a medium. My issue with this category isn't so much that it clearly moves into another realm, but rather the quality of the photography itself.

The series awarded World Press Photo story of the year was even more baffling. The photographs depicted a family in Madagascar coping with the impact of dementia - not an easy subject. The photographer had clearly obtained access to the family and there were some intimate scenes: preparing food, lying on a bed, the family at church. But the images themselves were dull and aesthetically artless, displaying the rudimentary basics of composition.

There is no doubt it is an important story, reflected in the extensive captioning, but it didn't make up for the weak images. Context and meaning are vital in journalistic images, but the photographs must also communicate visually and intuitively. If the images aren't working on that level, no amount of explanation will help and they aren't doing their job, which is communicating something more innate. Captions should include information that the image can't convey. Why would you use one medium (writing) to describe another (images)?

The series which won the Long-Term Project Award captured the story of migrants from Latin America travelling to the United States. There were some strong images here, but among them were several that stood out, not because they were arresting, because I had trouble understanding why they were included. When you place aesthetically weak images among the striking, the effect is not to elevate the photo story, but rather to dampen the group as a whole. And this could be said of the competition more generally.

The World Press Photo's social media presence is full of such examples. In one series from Colombia, submitted for 'The Rafael Project' and uploaded on the World Press Photo Instagram, there was no discernible composition or aesthetic value in the images at all. They were flat, poorly framed, poorly lit and were more like snapshots.

A collection of four images each showing examples from the world photo press Instagram Top left: 'The Raphael Project'. Top right: 'The Two Walls'. Bottom left: 'War is Personal'. Bottom right: 'Dada Paul' - Dementia in Madagascar.

The inclusion of artless photographs in the World Press Photo is a problem. It is clear that aesthetic judgements have been rendered subordinate to the story. But this misses a very important point.

The key to understanding aesthetic beauty is that it arouses curiosity. Scientific studies have shown that the brain reacts to images of beauty completely differently to ones that are ugly, or dull. Aesthetic beauty draws people into a subject. It stops us in our tracks and stimulates that part of the brain that wants to find out more. People ignore weak images. They do not brand themselves on the mind like the photographs taken by Mohammed Salem. As Robert Adams wrote, 'Badly composed pictures are as ineffective as they are puzzling: on what is the viewer to focus his concern?' Images of aesthetic beauty lead us into areas where we would not otherwise venture and that includes images that are difficult or shocking.

A photojournalistic image can be judged in two ways. The first is aesthetic: composition, drama, emotional impact, light, colour, movement, mood et cetera. The second is content: the story and what the image is depicting, its relevance dominating news headlines, depicting something that, perhaps, we had never considered before, or something we have seen many times over, presented in a new and compelling way.

This is why we need to look at images critically, separated (but not divorced) from their context and emotional content. This is how we judge whether a photograph is good or not. It is a key part of being a photographer. Showing a photograph that is uncomfortable to look at because of its content is one thing. Judging it because it doesn't work as an image is quite another. Calculations have to be based on aesthetic merits first and content second. It took me years to hone that skill. I understood that if I was ever going to communicate anything of any worth, it was vital to achieve a distance to make those crucial judgements. No matter how important or worthy you consider a subject, it doesn't make up for lacklustre photography.

Photojournalism can intimidate and thereby deflect a closer scrutiny. To critique a photograph depicting starvation, or someone on their deathbed, can seem heartless, almost offensive. But it is just a photograph of the subject, not the subject itself. And critiquing work by a photographer who bothered to go out and risk their life can be difficult. But a 'bad' photograph will always be just a bad photograph, irrespective of the conditions in which it was taken. I would go a step further. I believe that photographs that are about these big themes like war or poverty, should be interrogated even more rigorously. We need to be wary of having our judgements clouded by feelings, to avoid being manipulated or conned. These arguments can be used to intimidate and silence dissent. In order to reach people effectively, you have to keep these considerations distinct.

The late Philip Jones Griffiths once asked how can you focus if you have tears in your eyes? What he meant was you must put aside your feelings and get on with the job of taking photographs - that is why you are there. That doesn't mean abandoning one's humanity for the sake of a great photograph, but to channel one's outrage or anger and not lose sight of your purpose. In short, to be compassionate you have to be dispassionate. It's not an easy balance to strike.

There will always be criticism over the images selected in the World Press Photo. After all, photography is highly subjective. And it's an incredibly difficult job for judges of a competition like the World Press Photo to reach a consensus over tens of thousands of photographs they view. Added to that is the ever-shifting media landscape which complicates things still further. The World Press Photo finds itself in a confusing place, struggling to remain relevant.

“Looking across this year's competition, it is clear there is something more at work here than just photography.”

Looking across this year's competition (both the winners and the World Press Photo's social media presence), it is clear there is something more at work here than just photography. Some of the work looks contrived and self-conscious; that it is supporting a particular world view, attempting to shape reality to fit a set of ideas. Much of the work tended to be issue-led. In the World Press Photo Instagram account, for example, words appear prominently across some of the images with rather ponderous and heavy-handed messaging. In some cases, openly advocating an activist stance. What this suggests is two things. The first is that those presenting the work are not confident in the language of images. But secondly, it is about presenting the world as we would like it to be, which calls into question the judging criteria.

A screenshot of the world photo press Instagram profile Snapshot of the World Photo Press' Instagram feed

Returning to Mohammed Salem's photograph of Inas Abu Maamar, I wondered why a faceless image was chosen? At a time when there is much talk of 'safe spaces', 'trigger warnings' and concern about 'causing offence', did such concerns play a role in the decision-making? If making people 'uncomfortable' was a consideration, it shows how much we have retreated from reality - what right do we have to be comfortable?

Central to the power of the photograph where Inas Abu Maamar's looks up is the emotion in her face. It displays the essential power of photojournalism - reaching across boundaries, helping us empathise. Lewis Hines, who photographed child labour in the 1930s, wanted to show what was bad so that we would oppose it, and what was good so that we would value it. It is a moral standpoint, not an ideological one.

Many years ago, in the 1990s, the picture editor of the Independent Magazine in London said the photographers who interested him most were not those who had just returned from the latest catastrophe, but rather those who could show him the street outside his offices in an entirely new way. And there is much to be said for that. But I also believe that photographers should take on the greater themes of injustice like poverty or modernity too. Above all, they should question and probe received truths and narratives that those in power have a vested interest in promoting. Chief among them is the simplistic binary definitions of victims and perpetrators (as in Ukraine).

“With the World Press Photo, there is a danger of telling stories we want to hear, that mirror our own values rather than reflect different, or uncomfortable, realities.”

One of the exciting parts of photojournalism is having one's pre-conceived notions completely changed. It's enriching. That is why I have always been drawn to stories that have been overlooked, misrepresented or ignored. Looking at a situation from the perspective of, for example, a soldier from Burma's junta rather than a victim, I learned that the separation between perpetrator and victim is paper thin. Which is why I've always been suspicious of idealogues; their position is fixed. I want to be free to change my mind depending on the evidence I uncover. With the World Press Photo, there is a danger of telling stories we want to hear, that mirror our own values rather than reflect different, or uncomfortable, realities.

Susan Sontag famously wrote that 'no one ever understands anything from a photograph.' That is true. But it's not the whole truth. We can connect in a split second to those whose lives are different to our own, reaching across physical and social boundaries and recognising our common humanity (like Mohammed Salem's photographs).

What is clear is the World Press Photo is struggling with its own identity in a rapidly changing media landscape. It is attempting to please everyone and, in doing so, presenting a confused mix of work and formats with no clear direction. What constitutes 'The Press' in today's fast moving publishing environment? What and who does the World Press Photo represent? How does one define photojournalism today? It needs to ask itself these kinds of questions and find the courage to set clear parameters that really singles this competition out from the rest.

My own view is the World Press Photo should see the world as it is, not as we would wish it. Then, if people really want to work toward bettering society, they will have a foundation based on truth and a shared recognition of our common humanity in all its beauty and ugliness. This is what World Press should be doing.


Written by Nic Dunlop | Nic Dunlop is a photographer and author of 'The Lost Executioner' and 'Brave New Burma'.

© Nic Dunlop 2024, all rights reserved.


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