Photo Contest Is a Referendum on the Human Conscience

The World Press Photo competition has a history of selecting images for its “Best of” prize that defy the “wow” factor so common among contests. This year’s winning photo by Tim Hetherington is no exception.

Hetherington’s image of a soldier resting in a bunker in Afghanistan, however, goes beyond “nice art” by reflecting a larger social and political context surrounding the ongoing wars in the Middle East.

Would this same image be given as much attention by the judges if it had been made earlier in the war, rather than in 2007? Do politics, along with aesthetics, influence how people feel and think about pictures?

The Exhaustion of a Nation

Photographers do not often think of themselves as agents of political and social reform, but that’s exactly what some pictures accomplish. Gary Knight, a judge in this year’s contest, observes, “This image represents the exhaustion of a man — and the exhaustion of a nation.”

Knight’s sentiment suggests how images are chosen not only for artistic merit, but also as a way of sending a message to the world. In this way, the World Press Photo contest acts as a referendum on the human conscience. There is moral agency at work in a competition that recognizes the potency of photographic communication as a vital tool in shaping our larger social awareness of the world.

Coming Full Circle

Hetherington’s image conjures up memories of pictures from earlier wars, especially the conflict in Vietnam. What is seen in the tone and loose composition of Hetherington’s image can also be seen in the pictures of Larry Burrows, Philip Jones Griffith, Tim Page, and Don McCullin.

Historians often make associations with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan as an equivalent to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. We have now come full circle, as occupying events, and the pictures that represent these events, are replicated in the media. Hetherington’s image is no exception. As Knight suggests, “We’re all connected to this. It’s a picture of a man at the end of a line.”

While this picture may depict a man at the “end of a line,” it is also an image that extends the circle of memories, emotions, and behaviors we have toward conflict. Hetherington’s picture, in other words, suggests more of a continuation than an “end of a line.”

[tags]photojournalism, World Press Photo, photography contests [/tags]

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