In Full View: What of the Spectacle of Atrocity?

In Full View is a new fortnightly column by independent photographer and photo-editor Thato Mogotsi. Covering South African affairs, urban life and the arts, it will appear on Disposable Words every second Wednesday.

When photographer Jodi Bieber was announced as winner of the coveted World Press Photo of the Year award for 2010, local media made much fanfare about the fact that she was only the second South African photographer to ever receive the honour. Yet hardly any reports actually stated who the first South African photographer to receive the premier award was.

After scouring the WPP’s online archives all the way back to 1977, I discovered that little-known press photographer Leslie Hammond had won the award that year for his image of the forced removal, under Apartheid law, of residents of a Cape Town squatter camp. The image shows a mass of people fleeing the tear gas used by police to disperse their protest march against the demolition of their homes. It’s an image that does not seem to have aged well in terms of its impact. No doubt, in that year alone there were probably thousands of images just like Hammond’s that came out of the country’s independent newsrooms and international photo agencies. Hence, looking at this image today, for me at least, there is little sense of the photographer’s individual position or voice. Hammond was working for The Argus daily newspaper at the time and so was very much a part of the almost generic journalistic approach of simply showing what’s there.

Very few photojournalists back then were able to give us a sense of critical exploration of the subjects or issues they captured and maybe there was simply no room for that in the industry. A year prior to Hammond’s achievement, Sam Nzima’s photograph of Antoinette and Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a bleeding Hector Pieterson became the iconic record of the June 16, 1976, Soweto student revolt, which marked the turning point for white rule in the country. The image had far-reaching consequences both locally and internationally. The WPP jury that judged Hammond’s photo as the strongest image of 1977 was dominated by European and American members and so to that end it is possible to suggest that the clear-cut binary nature of Apartheid, and the degree to which photography was considered a “weapon of the struggle,” may have somewhat limited the language used to document the country’s story.

Which leads me to question whether there has been a real shift  today in what informs the WPP’s choice for Photo of the Year. What makes one image of human pain and suffering, anywhere in the world, more important or stronger than another? To what degree does the WPP panel of judges consider a distressing image an effective one?

When TIME Magazine published Bieber’s portrait of Bibi Aisha on the cover of their August 9, 2010, issue, it was accompanied by a letter from managing editor Richard Stengel with a title and blurb that seemed like a disclaimer: “What’s Hard To Look At: This week’s cover is disturbing but the reality it shows in Afghanistan is something from which we cannot turn away.” The cover carried the headline: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” I’m not about to suggest that Bieber’s image of Aisha is an exoticism or fetishism of the plight of women in Afghanistan. We are told that eighteen-year-old Aisha was made aware of the implications of having her image published on the cover of an American magazine. Stengel assures us in his letter that “Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan” and that “she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women.” As we read this from our differing vantage points, the image before us of a young woman whose face was so grotesquely mutilated somehow softens. Distress makes way for pity as we read journalist Aryn Baker’s accompanying report on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban—and how they fear a Taliban revival. In a recent interview on a South African talk radio show, Bieber stated: “I don’t want to associate the picture with the politics. For me it’s about extreme violence against women.”

But still I have to wonder, when a commissioned photographer’s image is framed in the context of a blatantly political editorial agenda—which really is the inadvertent effect of Stengel’s letter to his readers—to what extent can we credit the image as being an instrument of social advocacy? “It’s an incredibly strong image. It sends out an enormously powerful message to the world, about the fifty per cent of the population that are women, so many of whom still live in miserable conditions, suffering violence. It is strong because the woman looks so dignified, iconic,” Ruth Eichhorn, one of the WPP jury members, told Reuters.

When I first saw Bieber’s image on the cover of the magazine, almost immediately I had associations of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl. Obviously there’s a clear anthropological gaze about McCurry’s image on the cover of National Geographic. Only formally identified in 2002 as the subject of McCurry’s iconic portrait, Sharbat Gula, unlike Bibi Aisha, seemed to have had little participation in the making of the image, yet she too became a symbol both of the 1980s Afghan conflict and of the refugee situation worldwide. Is it possible that the WPP jury may have fleetingly made a similar connection, maybe even considered Bieber’s image on the cover of TIME in juxtaposition with McCurry’s portrait? Do the judges seek out images that contribute to the spectacle of atrocity, in the name of social awareness?


Thato Mogotsi is an independent photo researcher/editor, photographer, writer and new media explorer based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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