Monday, 20 February 2017
World Press Photo and the Taste of Photography
I buy newspapers every day. When I look at the pictures in a newspaper I want to be informed, moved, entertained, shocked and thrilled. I want to see pictures that sell newspapers which might sound crass but it's the case that pictures are emotional things, pretend as we might that they are not. On the whole, I don't want to see banal photographs (because they are banal. Which is a step away from boring), or photographs about in-between-places or data or algorthims. I don't want to see pages of conceptual landscape photography or typologies or trawls through the archive. They are not, as I sit on the 6:57 Bath-Cardiff train what I want from images. I want pictures that are direct, obvious, illustrative and part of a bigger wider world.
They are one of the things I want from photography. And it's not the same as what I want if I buy a photobook or go to an exhibition or visit a website. If I buy a photobook I don't want to see the same kind of pictures that I see in a newspaper. The same as when I go to an exhibition.
It's the same with books. I might be perfectly happy to read Primo Levi or Doestyevsky or whoever in the peace of my home when my brain is strong and muscular, but it's not what I want at the crack of dawn when my brain is weak and limp-neuroned. In the same way that I don't want to read English news on a Greek beach, I'd much rather have Patricia Highsmith or Raymond Chandler.
There are different kinds of writing for different situations and for different moods, locations and mental states. And there are different kinds of photography that fit for different occasions in other words. They serve different functions, different needs, different people...
Press photography is one of those kinds. But you can tick them off; fashion, advertising, documentary, wildlife, wedding, commercial, pornography, forensic, crime, medical, dental, passport, identification and on it goes.
There are many forms of writing, or film, or music. And we categorise these forms and we judge them. But sometimes we should be aware of our judging. We get a bit partisan about it and we can get snobby, especially when you enter the joyless discourse of sobriety that marks off much of the critical photography world. You have to talk with a certain tone. It's a tone you'd like to slap if it were a face.
It's like when people were only allowed to like one type of music to the exclusion of everything else. Photography can be a bit like that - you're only allowed to like whatever the photographic equivalent of Kraftwerk is. Maybe you can have some Steve Reich in there. Philip Glass would be too flamboyant. Whoop-de-doo!
I remember when I first got interested in photography. My taste followed a fairly familiar kind of trajectory.
It started with travel photography (because that's what I did), moved up to National Geographic, went on to World Press Photo, extended to Magnum and classic concerned photography, then that got me interested in Photobooks, then I learned something about Japanese photography, everything became a bit more autobiographical, a touch of the vernacular came in, so did the archive then things moved on to more multi-media visual representations with the trend being the move away from the actual image to everything that surrounded it. What's interesting is that as you move along this developmental trajectory, the numbers get smaller - how many people are actually interested in this kind of photography, how many people look at it, how many people buy it.
It's a trail followed by many people (but not everybody - what's your visual trail). People won't always admit it because they're is a hierarchy of taste in there and it roughly corresponds to the scale above. What's important in that scale is that there is a move away from photography, the purity (??) of the image, which can be regarded as the essential stupidity of the image - it's point and shoot.
As you go up the scale there's a distance from photography then and people sometimes imagine this distance is a mark of sophistication. It becomes less about the image and more about everything that surrounds the image. That's why so many people involved in photography really don't like photography. They don't even like looking for heaven's sake. I'm not sure I should pay any attention to somebody who doesn't like looking. It would be like buying a cookbook from somebody who doesn't like food. It doesn't make any sense.
Anyway, back to whatever it was I was talking about. So on these terms National Geographic is kind of low brow, Martin Parr is low middle-brow (and proud of it), Magnum is Middle Brow and Wolfgang Tilmans is high-brow but the low end of it (the hierarchies also tie in to economic, social and cultural hierarchies).
Photography is a taste culture then. And sometimes we are so narcissistic that we mistake our taste for some kind of absolute, or we mistake the dearth of people who share our taste for some kind of mark of sophistication. Or we mistake the evolution of our taste as symptomatic of a hierarchy, maybe because the idea of hierarchies are embedded in the evolutionary. I think that is because the photography world we talkative ones inhabit (academic, photobooks, documentary) is very small - we would rather be big fishes in small ponds then allow the vastness of the photographic universe to pollute the quasi-Brahminic rituals of our sphere of influence. And so we shut it out by creating artificial barriers.
Of course, we get work that crosses those barriers, that can make the leap from one taste-strata to another. We do have half an eye on the economic and social realities of the photographic world so work with elements of crime, or sex, or drugs, or youth culture can leap across boundaries; Weegee, Metinides, Brodie, spring to mind. And as mentioned above, we all like a bit of cash and glamour on the sly, so some genre-slipping is as much to do with the veneer of the work as with the content.
I think this is what happens with World Press Photo every year. It's a competition for press photos. These are pictures that fit into a particular genre and serve specific needs, including being beautiful, spectacular and impactful.
The winner this year, Burhan Ozbilici's picture of Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş murder of Andrey Karlov fits into all those categories. It's a difficult picture because, like many of the other World Press Photo Winners, it shows somebody who has died. Unlike most of these pictures, it also shows the killer. And he is a killer.
He's a killer who wants to be photographed. Let him be photographed. He wants to be written about. Let him be written about. Ultimately he will be judged for what he is; a murderer. For all the style and glamour and posing of the image, that is what will stick.
Because if we don't allow this death to be shown, then what death do we show. Disasters of war, memento mori, sharpshooters, lynchings, holocausts, murders, assassinations, executions, car crashes, falls, remains, corpses, cremations, post-mortems... pictures that witness, provide evidence, glorify, honour, memorialise, remember, warn, prosecute, celebrate... I'm not sure what can be shown and what can't be shown. And then if it can't be shown, it can't be written about or talked about or spoken of and we end up with a world that is fundamentally dishonest and in denial of what it is to be human.
Maybe also we overestimate the influence of photography, especially our kind of photography. Photography didn't end the Vietnam War, it didn't begin it. Photography didn't end any war. There are far more vivid and dramatic and heroifying images and clips of murders circulating online (Lina Hashim's work deals with this for instance) that do influence people and opinion, that do glorify murder and death - and they don't come from photojournalists or documentary photographers. And if you think about the images that have had a major effect on the lives of people, what kind of pictures are they? Who took the Marlboro Man pictures? How many deaths did they lead to? If they did lead to any? And who took all the countless anti-smoking photographs around the world. Which qualitatively have been determined to have led millions of people to stop smoking. And so, it could be argued, have saved thousands of lives.
In the UK, death is always hidden. We don't show the bodies and we don't show the killers - who is building those drones, who is pressing those buttons. This is a case where the killer is shown. Does it glamourise him, does it promote his cause? I don't think so. It's a great picture and fully deserves its award. It's photojournalism at its best.