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Rachel Somerstein: The “Year’s Best” Photojournalism: What It Is, and Why (Some of It) Still Matters

February 18, 2011

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By **Rachel Somerstein**


Rachel_Somerstein-small.jpgEvery year, World Press Photo awards prizes for the year’s “best” photojournalism. The problems of such a contest are myriad, not least because of the difficulties inherent to photojournalism, a documentary form so easily subject to manipulation (by photographers, editors, and viewers alike) that nevertheless intends to reveal “truth.” But at a time when camera phones and digital cameras are turning us all into documentarians—a world in which the New Republic’s Jed Perl asks whether photojournalism is a thing of the past—can World Press Photo’s award-winning images show us anything we don’t already know?

The “best” photo of the year, South African Jodi Bieber’s portrait of 18-year-old Afghani Bibi Aisha, certainly doesn’t. That photograph, which ran on the August 9th cover of Time, shows Aisha staring out from beneath a purple shawl that partially covers her lustrous hair, a hole where her nose once was. The back story: the 18-year-old Aisha fled her abusive husband and returned to her family’s home; as punishment for her flight, her husband carried out the Taliban-decreed sentence: cut off her nose and ears.

I’m not sure what’s “best” about this photo, which bears more than a striking resemblance to the Steve McCurry portrait of an Afghan girl that ran on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985 (McCurry revisited that girl nearly two decades later; in 2002 the magazine ran a series of “before and after” photos of the girl with the “haunted and haunting” eyes). Is Bieber’s photo the year’s best mash-up of exoticism, women, and violence? Most-surprising “gotcha” moment? (Thought you were going to get a dark beauty with smoky eyes? Gotcha!) Or the year’s most-awesome image of a woman whose face has been sliced? (Stills from the television show Facing Trauma, a new series on Discovery Health about women who have been slashed, choked, stabbed, raped, and beaten by men—and who have the scars to show for it—might have given Bieber a run for her money.) Bieber’s photograph shows us something that makes me sick to know: images of a woman harmed sell magazines (to say nothing of books and movies). And if the woman’s beauty is still somewhat intact—if the photograph splits the difference between grotesque and beautiful—so much the better; we have the sublime.

[M]aybe Wolf’s photos qualify as journalism because they show how technology can function as the kind of unbiased, all-seeing, unflinching reporter that no human ever could.

Far more noteworthy is the honorable mention Michael Wolf garnered for his photos appropriated from Google street view, “A series of unfortunate events.” For the series, Wolf mined Google street view for noteworthy scenes, then photographed them on his computer. “I use a tripod and mount the camera, photographing a virtual reality that I see on the screen,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a real file that I have, I’m not taking a screenshot. I move the camera forward and backward in order to make an exact crop, and that’s what makes it my picture.”

As images, Wolf’s photographs don’t always work. Some are irrelevant, a snippet of frat-boy humor, like the photograph of a woman crouching behind a car to urinate. But the photograph of an older woman, alone, who has apparently collapsed on the sidewalk; the two men who seem about to choke another man; two children dragging a third by an impromptu leash; resonate on a far deeper level, showing us, even in this age of seeing all, the type of quotidian, banal violence we habitually refuse to see, to admit, to know.

But Wolf’s series has been named for a photojournalistic award, which begs the question: who’s the journalist here? The force, however unwitting, behind Google street view? Wolf, who—like any good journalist—has sifted through the facts and determined those most important? Can we argue that Wolf is doing, with images, the same thing that news aggregator sites do with stories? Or even, for that matter, what hyperlocal news sites claim to do: tell us about the woman who sprained her ankle on Main Street, the crazy neighbor who walks around with a semiautomatic, the well-attended minor league baseball game?

But if we refuse to call this journalism—and there are plenty who do—we still must ask why Wolf’s series has won mention in a contest about press photography. In that light, maybe Wolf’s photos qualify as journalism because they show how technology can function as the kind of unbiased, all-seeing, unflinching reporter that no human ever could. You might say that Wolf highlights the ways reporters depend on other media in the way that they relied, half a century ago, on hungry “stringers” (people!) on the ground. You could argue that Wolf’s photos function as contemporary street photography (itself a form claimed by artists and photojournalists alike). Or perhaps these works simply demonstrate—whether we’re aware or not, and whether we like it or not—the biggest news story of the moment: in this era of surveillance and willful over-sharing, the boundaries between “art,” “documentation,” and “news” have already started to collapse.

Copyright 2011 Rachel Somerstein

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Rachel Somerstein’s feature on Obama’s art selections from the White House appeared in Guernica in 2009. Her essays and criticism have appeared in ARTnews and Next American City. She recently earned her M.F.A. from New York University and is presently at work on a collection of short fiction. She is a staff writer at Next American City.

To read blog entries from Rachel Somersteinand others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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