Hello dear reader, hope you’ve had a good week. Thanks for returning to the small section of the internet I call ‘my website’, and welcome to The Second Blog Post (World Press Photo Thoughts)!
With the announcement of the winners of the annual World Press Photo competition today, I’d like to throw my hat in to the comment ring and express some thoughts on the contest. I won’t be specifically criticising any of the actual pictures or photographers, as I feel like the work is all of a high standard, even if it’s not necessarily my cup of tea (I prefer coffee really, but I’ll take a green tea with lemon if there’s no coffee available or if it’s past 3pm, unless I’m going out that evening), and besides - who am I to criticise? My credentials are pretty flimsy.
The first thought was that, (as always) I’m surprised how much black and white photography there is - for a competition that gets quite hung up on enforcing rules about manipulation and staging, I find this frankly ridiculous. Whilst I love Robert Frank (and this fantastic quote, “Black and white are the colours of photography. To me, they symbolise the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”), THE WORLD IS IN COLOUR. Removing the colour from a scene seems to me like a rather significant manipulation of reality…
The World Press Photo rules are, in my opinion, a bit of a mess in this instance. First, they say that ‘manipulation is adding or removing content from the image.’, but then seem to contradict that to allow for ‘adjustments of color or conversion to grayscale that do not alter content’. I really don’t understand how ‘colour’ is not considered part of the ‘content’ of a photograph.
“But wait Simon”, I hear the devil’s advocates out there saying “one could shoot black and white film, and therefore there would be no colour content to remove, and therefore there would be no manipulation - what’s really the difference between that and converting a digital image to grayscale?”. Ok, but in 2018 you would have to make an intentional, and I would argue manipulative, decision to do that (rather that use colour film/digital), and I think that that decision would still go wildly against the whole notion of providing ‘an accurate and fair representation of the scene’ (from the first sentence on the WPP’s ‘Code of Ethics’). I honestly believe that if colour photography had been invented first, and black and white second, then black and white photographs would not be accepted in this contest - that they are is surely to do with tradition rather than any logically consistent reason (no doubt some smart alec will comment below with a thoughtful retort to my flawed argument… Well I suppose I should welcome that).
Just to be clear - I’ve absolutely no issue with black and white photography in general - just in relation to this competition, which seems to want to perpetuate the notion that photographs are truthful (whatever that means) representations of the world. Yes, they can sometimes tell us some things about the light reflecting objects in view of the lens at that moment, and from that we may be able to draw certain conclusions, but they also leave a lot out (everything else, in fact, by definition) - but that’s a strength, not a weakness. Photography should embrace the potential for ambiguity, not try to pretend it doesn’t exist (I know a lot of photographers do already do exactly this - well done them).
I was going to address the rules on ‘staging’ as well, but this post is long enough already - maybe I’ll return to that properly another day. Suffice to say, I don’t agree with the WPP interpretation… I will however just make a couple of brief remarks about this paragraph (again, from the WPP rules), because I just can’t help myself;
Staging and re-enacting are different from posing for portraits. Portraits are a special genre of photography. They are made through a relationship between the subject and the photographer in which the subject poses for the photographer. However, for the contest, portraits must not present subjects doing things they would not ordinarily do. Portraits must not mislead viewers by faking a scene, meaning they cannot present scenes that appear as something other than they are.
How is ‘posing’ any different from ‘staging’? And in what sense is posing for a press photographer something anybody would ‘ordinarily’ do?