Cliché on cliché?

I am looking forward to being surprised by imaginative photography that is original, curious, and thoughtful. I am not concerned at all about what equipment has been used, I am not sure it’s really very relevant. I would love to see a representation of the world that isn’t reductive, that doesn’t represent the world in photographic cliches – old or new cliches. Since the first year I judged the contest, I saw photographers emulating work that had been successful in previous years or plagiarizing the style and vision of someone else.

– Gary Knight, Chair of  2013 World Press Photo Contest (before he stepped down)

I agree and would like to see the same thing.

The reason why it won’t happen is because photography is not an established institution consecrated by objective form. Photographers just make up whatever rules they want for shooting… “IF it feels good, shoot it”…”Rules are meant to be broken.”….”Gear doesn’t matter”… etc etc etc

When a medium does not have an objective form, then it becomes ruled by conventional formulas associated with genres. This why most photographers are always struggling to categorize work as landscape, portrait, glamour etc. All of those categories are genres. Furthermore, the price of admission into a genre is “resemblance.” This means that all genre work is based on how similarity. Unfortunately, similarity is the opposite of originality. So it’s very difficult to expect original work to manifest itself in a photographic environment dominated by genres.

Objective form is based on metaphorical expression which means that content is arbitrary. For example, harmony can be expressed in a photograph of a supermodel, a landscape, or a pile of trash in the desert. Any object or content can be used for the expression of objective form. The point is that when photographers and audiences begin to demand and appreciate “pure forms” instead of superficial content, then the types of photographs that will be created to fill the need will begin to defy the familiar cliches present in conventional genre work.

Mike Moss commenting on A Photo Editor

The winning photo:

world press

(Powerful photo. We wouldn’t expect anything less)

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. Tobias Key says:

    This is undeniably a very powerful image. But to my eye it looks like it has been very heavily lit for a photojournalism image. Look at the man on the far left. His left ear is red from being backlit, and I assume that the sun is coming from behind. But the overwhelming light is a soft source going from left to right. It could be a white building reflecting the sun but looks like a soft box fired by a radio trigger on the camera. I know that we all use fill when we have to, but something about that level of technical planning makes me feel a bit ambivalent about the image. Should you make sure tragedy is beautifully lit?

    • This is an interesting conundrum. Is the light too beautiful? Should all desperately sad and tragic images be harshly lit (some of Alex Webb’s Haiti work comes to mind eg ‘Under a Grudging Sun’, work I admire and like very much.) Personally I dont think so.

      When I saw this image the immediate impact was the detail, the angle of the lens used (wide) and the height held (higher than eye-level) all drawing attention to the two pathetic and lifeless bundles held at the front. This is an image taken by someone wanting to portray the depth of a procession, with the small children prominent. The photographer likely knew that this would produce an image that is arresting and emotionally charged and it certainly had the desired effect on me.

      But the effect achieved in this image is not just about being able to hold a camera in the right place, it has also been arrived at by a knowledge of light.

      It’s something I’ve done in the tropics often, photographed in alleyways where light is less harsh, bouncing off walls and softly illuminating the subjects almost like a giant softbox, no harsh shadows evident only gentle and revealing light, varying in its colour temperature depending on the tone of walls it has reflected from.

      By using this effect to best advantage the photographer has given ‘depth’ to his image, and its a depth of detail. Add that to the emotional depth, and this image fills your visual field with unrelenting levels of impact.

      And the dissonant quality, of showing a desperately tragic scene in what is arguably soft and ‘beautiful’ light simply adds a further twist.

      A harsh alternative might have been a brightly top lit sunlit image, dark shadows on the mourners faces, eye-sockets black, faces shade-hidden and blank, and the two small children spotlit because they are held out from the bearers, face up, and clad in white. Would it have worked? Who knows. It would be very very different, and the discussion might be different too.

      But for me this is carefully observed work taken I suspect by someone who understands that raw material, light, that all our images are made of, and although it’s complex stuff in many ways, used wisely it can do something simple – move you.

      I see no fancy filters, no softboxes, no complex artificial lighting rigs, only nature: human nature and natural light, carefully and deliberately combined to communicate.

      And it worked, and that’s all that matters to me.

    • MY says:

      I have a harder time believing there are photojournalists running around Gaza carrying softboxes and radio triggers than I do with a lucky magical light moment in an alley. I’ve seen these magic light moments in life but I can’t picture a photojournalist running ahead of a burial party to setup a light for one or two shots before they pass around him. I’m not convinced it was planned beyond seeing the way the light was falling and getting into position.

    • Amin Musa says:

      Tobias, Hansen is noted in the 15/02/2013 entry on NYT’s Lens Blog as explaining the light bounced off walls at various points.

      “The image draws some of that power from its striking — almost stylized — lighting and tones. Mr. Hansen, 48, said the unusual look resulted when light bounced off the walls of the alley for just a few moments.”

      While theres no reference to whether this was natural or artificial light, and I also have doubts about the lighting, the note may explain the lighting… or be further more mystifying.

  2. Where are the women – mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunties – the ones whose bellies were filled with those now dead bodies?

  3. Wm. says:

    Either the existing light was miraculous or the original image’s tonality was manipulated to resemble miraculous light.

    I am not saying the existing light didn’t look exactly as it appears in this image. I have no way of knowing. Low probability events happen all the time. It is possible to have perfect natural light during profoundly tragic and unimaginably sad circumstances. But it is rare.

    I am not saying if the tonality was adjusted to enhance the light quality, the image is fraudulent. All the data required to produce the final tonality, could have been present in a single raw file. Any decent wedding photographer knows how to process a single raw file to enhance an image’s esthetic appeal.

    If it turns our the light didn’t appear this way to the human eye, so what? The data was present in the raw file. To me there is no ethical dilemma. manipulating tonality is no more than dodging and burning duringdarkroom printing, or altering negative contrast duting development, on steroids. And dodging/burning in the dark room and purposeful development techniques were never considered fraudulent.

    I guess if you want to win a contest these days, your image has to stand out in every way possible. Also, right now this tonality style is very popular throughout photography.

    Clearly the judges felt this image is journalistic. You could even claim the lovely tonality presents an interesting duality by contrasting the precious beauty of nature (real or implied) with the hideous horror of war. In my view the content alone is sufficient to win the competition.

  4. Stan B. says:

    Tobias- I very much had a similar reaction. Unless there was some incredible stroke of luck with naturally occurring bounce light, seems the photographer knew the route and set up the appropriate lighting. That shouldn’t be a mark against him or the image, but as with you, it somehow strikes a manipulative chord that I can’t seem to shake (though we’re probably in a tiny minority).

    Perhaps seeing the actual print would make the whole point moot…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.