Warren Richardson has won the World Press Photo of the year for his photograph depicting refugees crossing a razor wire border fence as they travel deeper into Europe. This grainy, blurred image shows a man, his face drawn from apparent exhaustion, passing an equally limp child under a stretch of razor wire to hands outstretched from the gloom beyond. Describing the making of photograph Richardson writes that: ‘They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men first. I must have been with this crew for about five hours and we played cat and mouse with the police the whole night. I was exhausted by the time I took the picture. It was around three o’clock in the morning and you can’t use a flash while the police are trying to find these people, because I would just give them away. So I had to use the moonlight alone.’
Immediately noticeable is the blurring and camera noise evident in the photograph, which to sideline as being simply the consequences of a technical restrictions created by the environment is to overlook it’s significance in shaping how this image might be read (particularly in the light of recent World Press rule changes). The technical ‘imperfection’ of this image brings with it the idea that it’s selection might be an intentional rupture with the past, a contrast to previous winners which have often stood accused of being over polished, even the extent of willful and dishonest manipulation. Richardson’s picture is shown warts and all, with the high ISO camera noise imprinted on to every part of the photograph like a digital fingerprint. Of course that’s not to preclude the potential for manipulation even in this sort of photograph, only to observe that the technical nature of this image brings with it the subtext that nothing here is hidden or contrived. To paraphrase and adapt Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, within the grain is imprinted the messagethat photographic beauty has been sacrificed in the name of veracity.
As soon as I saw Richardson’s winning image it strongly called to mind two other photographs. Most immediately it reminded me of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press winning photo of an exhausted soldier at a US army outpost in Afghanistan. Part of that similarity is again in the compromised aesthetics of both images (I used the word compromised loosely here since blur and grain have an aesthetic beauty of their own which isn’t often enough acknowledged). It’s also the pose and expressions of the two men in these two photographs. Both are caught in a moment of thought numbing exhaustion, and both also caught in the fine but irresistible strands that link us as individuals to the geopolitics which shape our world, processes beyond what an individual might hope to understand, let alone influence. The exhaustion they exhibit might just as easily be read an exhaustion with the implacability of the huge events that shape our lives, as much as simple physical exhaustion.
There is a weird sense of circularity between the two images for me, a powerful sense of the way news events are far more connected than is often acknowledged (a sentiment which also appears in the Broomberg and Chanarin essay referenced earlier). It speaks to me of how the misadventures of one war far away in Afghanistan might be connected to wider regional instability and the flight of thousands of people across European borders lined with razor wire. This interconnectedness is something which feels increasingly vital to bring to the fore in the way we discuss any important issue in the world today. However it is also one that traditional news reporting, and photojournalism in particularly, feels to me to be ever more ill equipped to probe and explain. Apart from those rare and brilliant projects (I think for example of Allan Sekula’s still unrivalled Fish Story) how often can photography be said to think so globally?
The second photograph that Richardson’s image made me think of is Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, the toddler drowned and washed ashore on a Turkish beach while fleeing with his family from the conflict in Syria. Part of the resonance is obviously in the shared focus on the humanitarian disaster breaking on the shores of Europe, and which European governments seem unwilling to respond to in a way which is either coherent or which reflects the supposedly shared values of the continent. The similarity also lies to an extent the pose again of the man in Richardson’s photograph as he carries the limp body of a child. But above all the resonance for me lies in a recognition that there is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism in both images, something heightened in the case of the Kurdi photograph by the unspeakable awfulness of what is being seen, and in Richardson’s photograph I would say by the aesthetics of the photograph. His viewpoint on the other side of the wire, and particularly the grain and blur which might once have spoken much more to the idea of compromised visuals in the quest for truth, now speaks to me much more of the voyeuristic public production of photographs.
This might be a photograph from a bystander’s smartphone, a comment which is somewhat obvious and prosaic at a time when in fact that’s exactly what so many news photographs are. But in the process of us all becoming photographers or potential photojournalists I wonder if we’ve also bought into the photojournalist’s mistake of believing that witnessing is resolving, and that photographing these events is anything more than a form voyeurism if it isn’t followed up by a proactive use of those photographs to drive some sort of meaningful response. The possibility of publishing images and getting them seen is open to more people than ever before, but the act of publishing a photograph which offers to reveal the world’s misfortunes seems less able than ever to catalyse change. To be clear this isn’t intended as a judgment of Richardson, but a thought about professional and amateur image production more broadly, nor is it to accept the tired argument that photographs are incapable of changing the world, as the Alan Kurdi photograph shows, they still do.
Lastly, and at the risk of sounding cold after a discussion of child drownings and mass exodus, it does seem odd to me to be talking about awarding the photograph of the year in the age of image overload. Does the superabundance of photography that we face today make singling out specific images an ever more important activity or one which is increasingly anachronistic? Do these massive events like the refugee crisis tangibly benefit from this sort of reduction to single images, or does it make them feel understandable, and perhaps therefore manageable in a way which is unhelpfully reassuring, which defuses our responsibility as citizens to get angry that our governments are allowing people to drown in their thousands in our seas. With ever more urgency I think we need to consider careful when this sort of photography is crystallisation, and when it is just simplification.