|The World Press Photo Awards days held in Amsterdam recently had something of an 'after the party has ended' feel to them, when you look around at all the wreckage and wonder how you are going to clean up all the mess, but know with some effort and imagination you can maybe get it all back into shape before your parents return...
This wasn’t just because it took place this year just after Queen’s Day, the mad party that transforms the normally clean and tidy Dutch streets into quagmires of crushed beer cans, squashed orange cowboys hats and garlands of orange balloons floating away forlornly in the morning breeze. This year too it had an extra, disturbing quality when the usually joyful celebrations turned to horror when a car careered through the crowd, killing and maiming on its way, transforming a party into a wake in seconds, bringing the world of World Press to the streets of Holland. There was a lot of talk of how to survive the recession, of how to find new ‘business models’, and of how to explore new ways of connecting with the audience, but still a sense that there is still to much mess to be cleared up before we can really set the room straight again and get on with planning the next party.
The awards have now really established them as a vital date in the photojournalistic calendar, with the unique opportunity to see 30 or so photographers present their work to an audience in the packed Felix Meritis; some excellent, some good, some not so good, but as always plenty of gems in there. For me one of the highlights was to realise the depth and breadth of the 8-year odyssey Antony Suau has engaged on after returning to the USA after his mammoth project on the transformations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This new work provides a fitting counterpart to his documentation of the decline of one of the cold war superpowers, as he has engaged with the issues that threaten to trigger the decline of the other; the divisions over the Iraq war, the far right, and of course now, his prize winning series on the economic crisis.
For once, it was satisfying to see an overall prize winning picture emerging as just the tip of the iceberg of a far larger project, and giving that project a new prominence that it richly derived. Emotional, ironic, witty and challenging, Suau’s work from America had the feel of a sustained critique of a fallen empire, the devastation the Bush legacy has left at home as much as aboard.
Stephen Mayes gave a valedictory speech as his retirement gift to WPP, beautifully presented and illustrated with over 200 of his own intimate behind the scenes images of the judging process over the last few years. With a wry smile, he offered 3 golden rules on how to win an award at WPP:
Rule 1 Is to enter! Don’t try to anticipate the jury and how they will think, just put in your best pictures.
Rule 2 Bad pictures don’t win. The discussions about winning pictures are always between good pictures
Rule 3 Get published the jury will pull out unrecognised unknown pictures but being a little familiar does sensitise the jury
But of course, he did note that statistically your best chance of winning is if you are American, male and shoot in black and white.
Stephen laid down the gauntlet to the Awards, however, and by extension to the profession, in analysing the trends he has observed over his time as secretary. Quoting one juror as commentating that 90% of the pictures submitted were about 10% of the world, he questioned why most photojournalism investigates a very limited series of tropes in a very limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self replicating machine that churns of copies of itself in perpetual motion, which he described as a ‘feeling that photojournalism, rather than trying to reinvent itself its trying to copy itself ‘, and that the industry is in essence reactionary and unrealistic in its understanding of the changes in global media and society. Too many photographers are ‘reflecting the media not as it is but as we wish it was’ and assuming that it is the world that must come to them, not they that must go to the world. Bemoaning the surfeit of stories about the ‘Dispossessed and powerless, the exotic and anywhere but home’ he encouraged photographers to ‘photograph what really, really intrigues you’, commenting that ‘In general what is really missing in photojournalism is work that is really intimate and personal’.
One could not get much more intimate and personal, of course, than the work of the keynote speaker at the Awards. In a continuation of the seeming desire of WPP to throw the cat among the pigeons, The Sem Presser lecture this year was again delivered by someone from outside of the photojournalism genre, Nan Goldin. Or rather, it was not Nan Goldin, as she opened her performance by declaring that ‘ Nan Goldin is dead, if you have come to see her you had better go home now !’
In a bravura presentation that had many in the audience wondering if she would make it through to the end, she covered her life in pictures, in a literal sense as her autobiographical exploration of human relationships, psychologies and emotions. She echoed Mayes’ desire to see more work from communities the photographer lives in rather than the exotic, declaring ‘ I think you can only really photograph your own tribe’. Yet in a gratifying admission for the audience, she admitted that despite her early animosity to journalism, that the need to find out about the rest of the world had led her to a realisation that to photograph someone else’s tribe in a far away land could have some validity in informing us of the lives of far away others.
In watching her on stage, I realised that the key to her entire life and work is that it is one huge performance, whether carefully judged or spontaneous. She showed work she had shot on assignment for the New York times, as well as an unusually romantic set of photographs that chronicled her love affair with an Egyptian ship’s cook, a much softer and more lyrical work than her often hard edged New York pictures. In a self contradictory, yet alluring statement, she declared that ‘you out to have a license to have a camera these days’, a statement that found much favour in an audience feeling threatened by the rise of citizen photojournalism and the catastrophic demise of much of the editorial market.
Whether Mayes’ call for a more inclusive, less exotic and more emotional set of entries will be realised this time next year remains to be seen, but for sure the Awards will be worth being at to find out.
MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography
London College of Communication
World Press Photo 2009
Noor Photo Agency
Brenda Anne Keanally