Thursday, March 01, 2007

The camera never lies...

Interesting take on the much heralded photograph by Spencer Platt, winning image of the World Press Photo awards (thanks for the pointer Joerg).

When it originally appeared in the press at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but even more so since it won the WPF awards, this picture has been variously described along the lines of "rich young Lebanese sightseeing in a bombed out neighbourhood", "rich Lebanese Disaster Tourists" along with, at times, commentary on their "obviously" inappropriate dress for being in a conservative neighbourhood and so on.

Here, for example, is part of the Photo District News take on it at the time the awards were announced:

"The picture shows a group of five cavalier Beirut residents cruising in a red Mini convertible through a neighborhood that has been reduced to rubble by Israeli bombs."It's a picture you can keep looking at," said World Press Photo jury chair Michele McNally, assistant managing editor for The New York Times, in a statement announcing the prize. "It has the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos. This photograph makes you look beyond the obvious.""

Spiegel has a somewhat different take on it in - "Catering to a Lebanese Cliche":

"We're from Dahiye, from the suburb, ourselves," Bissan explains on a hot February afternoon in Beirut. She, her 22-year-old brother Jad and her 26-year old sister Tamara fled the neighborhood during the Israeli bombings. They stayed in a hotel in the safer district of Hamra and did what most Lebanese did at the time. They waited. The siblings met the other two women in the hotel, Noor Nasser and Lillane Nacouzi, at the hotel. Both are employees of the Plaza Hotel and were allowed to stay in vacant rooms during the war.

On Aug. 15, the day of the ceasefire, Jad borrowed a friend's orange Mini Cooper. For weeks the siblings had heard nothing about whether or not their apartment block was still standing -- now that the fighting was over, they wanted to go and see for themselves. Jad drove and Tamara rode shotgun, while Bissan squeezed in between the two friends on the backseat, holding her camera phone ready. "We spoke briefly about whether we should really open the roof," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But it was so hot, and there were five of us in the small car, so we folded it back."...

Bissan admits that, at first glance, her excursion must look like a prime example of disaster tourism. "But look at our faces. They clearly show how horrified we were, how shocked," she says. "We were not cheerful."

...She has told journalists that her apartment was badly damaged, with all the windows broken and the furniture crushed by shock waves from the bombs. More at this

Daryl from PDN sent a link to further article I missed on their site Award-Winning Photo Puts Subjects On Defensive which adds a bit more.

Now, what was that about "looking beyond the obvious"? This is certainly a good example of the ambiguities inherent in photography in general and photojournalism in particular (and which, imo, are actually at the heart of what makes photography work)


Stan B. said...

Well, this photo certainly does have "the complexity and contradiction of real life." But I aint betting on any time soon when any "photograph makes you look beyond the obvious." Didn't we go through this very same thing last year with an eerily similar photo, of eerily similar twenty year olds in front of an eerily similar tragedy on 9/11?

Anonymous said...

PDNOnline also posted an article about the subjects of this photograph that may be of interest:

Award-Winning Photo Puts Subjects On Defensive

- Daryl, PDN

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog and thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts here. I am putting together a collection of photos and information on the Mini line up and so far I managed to cover some of the models, and you will find some cool Mini Cooper S photos, Mini Cooper convertible pictures and high resolution Mini Moke photos. I hope you’ll find the website to be interesting, in case you want to pay it a visit.
Enjoy your day!

Michael R.

promenadeur said...

The World press photo and the discussion about this photo reminds me of a photo of Thomas Hoepker: “Young new Yorkers on the Brooklyn waterfront 9/11”. It shows a group of young people at the shore of the Hudson, in the background the burning World trade center. The picture gives the impression, as if the people are relaxing in the sun, unimpressed from whats happening. Hoepker himselves and/or Magnum did not publish the photo in context to this tragedy. It however became the frontispiece of Hoepkers “Photografien 1955-2005”, appeared 2005. One of the women. showed in the photo, Chris Schiavo, says among other things to the photo: “It can't be fun to have your public moment of emotional confusion hijacked by a Magnum photographer and turned into a national symbol of moral disgrace by a New York Time columnist.” This is hardly to comment. However it is inseparably linked with a problem of street photography (see the debate in the Magnum Blog). One must unfortunately admit that street photography is no guarantee to get a genuine sight of our society. A photo shows never simply facts. It is the view and conversion of the photographer. And, when looking at the print, the area for interpretations opens, if we regard a picture temporally and spatially independently of the event.

Stan B. said...

Hear what Spencer Platt has to say:

tim atherton said...

thanks for that NPR link.

There have been some recent blog discussions on photographs being able to carry meaning, and I think this photogrpah is such an excellent example of how little photographs actually do carry with them, and what big assumptions people make about photography and what it appears to show.

Photographs are neraly always ambiguous. And they are about appearances - which are the opposite or reality. But that's where their power lies