Every so often, a photograph is taken that will change the course of history. By definition, the image will be akin to any other, capturing a snapshot from time. However, the photographs in question will be completely unique, due to its ability to inspire the minds of any who happen to behold it.
Whether the image is categorised by its political, natural or human angle, it should be defined by its emotional charge; leaving behind a trace that remains with the observer for days, weeks or months after first seeing it. Many Aborigines believed that the a photograph — when taken — stole a little bit of the soul and I second this: not as a negative quality that diminishes the subject of the photograph, but rather as a positive thing, enhancing the life of the onlooker by emotionally educating them, one snapshot at a time. Documentary photographer Don McCullin, who was well known for his depictions of war and poverty, said:
“photography… is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
Today, in a world where social media and the availability of inexpensive technology has anointed anyone with a camera as a freelance photojournalist, how can we sift through the many millions of photographs taken each day to find those few worth celebrating?
The answer is simple and — fortunately — free.
World Press Photo of the Year was envisioned sixty years ago this year, initially created in response to a Dutch national competition the ‘Zilveren Camera’. The idea was to expose Dutch photographers to the world so that they were able to benefit from greater exposure of their work, however, the exhibition grew exponentially and is entered by over five thousand photographers from one hundred and thirty one countries. Over the years, it has narrated world events through the photos submitted: from the outbreak of wars and the AIDS epidemic, to the celebration of sporting events and the democratic freedom in countries around the world. The photographs have sparked controversy, such as the moral justification of publishing the image of subject moments from death, whilst others have acted aesthetically, expanding the creative limitations of the photograph.
The naked girl running from a napalm strike. The Buddhist monk aflame but peaceful, sitting cross-legged as others look on. The single demonstrator standing defiant before an column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. You might not know it, but these were all winners of the World Press Photo competition and visiting this year, I can feel the weight of these past winners, echoes of emotion and feeling, weighing down heavier than the concrete above my head.
True to its legacy, the exhibition documents the events of 2014-5 perfectly, from Wimbledon, to the MH17 plane crash, to the troubles in Ukraine. The pictures are harrowing to say the least and viewer discretion is advised, however the positive outcome of the emotion felt is that the events do become real; transported from the disconnected reports of far away countries around the globe. Instead, the photographs transform the obscure and vague into the real and tangible and suddenly, the cold, recycled statistics of the headlines become people who have lived and suffered terrible ordeals. Standing there observing, I felt very lucky. Not only because I had not had to experience the pain that was expressed in the eyes of so many of the subjects but also because I got to take away a part of that reality and be educated by it so that in the future, I would not acknowledge tragedy so lightly. ∎
(Editorial photography: Steph Dye for Bubbobar)