The World Press Photo of the Year was chosen, selecting Samuel Aranda’s photograph from Yemen of a woman comforting a man, (presumably) the victim of political violence during the rebellion against Saleh’s regime. I argue that this selection is problematic.
Immediately I declare that I am not a follower of World Press Photo agency, or of Samuel Aranda’s work. I am a photographer, and seeing this choice gave me a reaction that this decision was made in poor judgment. This is not an indictment of the photograph or photographer — it is a beautifully composed shot, and I’m faithful that it was taken in an earnest reaction to a poignant moment.
What I take issue is that this photo is made striking because it is a photograph not just of a woman comforting a man, but that it is pointedly a photograph of a woman in an abeya comforting a man. Western media for years has identified the abeya, or the burkha, or the veil, as a symbol of Muslim otherness. It is portrayed as a religious burden, or masculine oppression, or a reluctance to assimilate to “modern” culture. Such portrayal is an act of cultural relativism.
The Arab Spring was and continues to be a uprising which, in addition to airing the political grievances of the nations against their states, demand respect for human dignity. I believe that it is a pedestrian and self-aggrandizing reaction of a Western media which says, “Behold, the other displays the same human compassion.” In such, this recognition strikes me as a backhanded and patronizing compliment which simultaneously rewards itself for sharing this feeling of compassion, while reinforcing the status as other.
This is a point which the Arab Spring demanded we move past, and this selection illustrates that we have not done so.
I would like to know, am I being overly analytical or cynical in my reaction to this? I hope that I am, but when I look at the situation in a meta sense, and the political power at large, it seems to emphasize a viewpoint from an out-of-date perspective which is still entrenched in control.
Two problematic quotes from the website, from the judges:
"In the Western media, we seldom see veiled women in this way, at such an intimate moment."
Isn’t it the point that in showing dignity, we need to drop “veiled” as the qualifier?
"We might never know who this woman is…"
How often do you know who the subject of such a photo is? The man’s face is obscured as well. Why not ruminate on that? I feel this serves to justify my reaction that the response is marveling at her, and not at the situation.
I want to leave this by emphasizing that I don’t think any of this is intentional. I think it’s a reflection of existing power dynamics, conflict, and media position that have been embedded into societal consciousness, and this is a place where people need to question their own feelings and overcome prejudices that have been imposed on us over time.