WPP Pietà

I’ve been reading quite a lot of criticism of the WPP winning image by Samuel Aranda on various pages around the web, and you can read an interesting summary of the controversy it has aroused from Jeremy Nicholl on his ‘The Russion Photos Blog’ in his Why The Critics Of The World Press Photo Muslim Pietà Are Wrong – By The People Who Know Best.

I’ve not always been too impressed by WPP winners, and I share many of the overall criticisms that various people have made over the years of the WPP and other similar awards. I’m not a fan of such competitions, which I think tend to trivialise work and concentrate on the spectacular and neglect work that is perhaps in the longer term more important in changing attitudes and exposing evil. Although I have a great admiration for those photographers who continue to expose the horrors of war – and think it is a necessary and useful work, unfortunately much of it is now only too familiar.

Samuel Aranda’s image spoke strongly to me when I first saw it and still does now. And its strength comes from the way it uses various stereotypes, and repositions them.  I don’t agree that the Pietà can be claimed as uniquely Christian imagery, although we know its representation in Western art. But I would expect similar images to emerge in any representational art tradition, because essentially it is about a human relationship, between mother and child, which is widespread across humanity and I think has a powerful evolutionary basis. Although taken up and used by Christians and made a part of Christian iconography, its roots I think lie deeper in our humanity.

The black burkha is in some respects a more potent and loaded symbol of our times, promoted by Western media in a demonisation of Muslims, a looming presence that relates back to sinister and shadowy nightmares and horror, as well as to more recent images, media hysteria and even some government bans. This is a picture that reminds us strongly of the person and the humanity underneath that black covering, her gestures amplified by the white gloves.

This is a picture that speaks at several levels about good and evil, and the framing and the shadows help to make it a powerful statement, as well as a complex one.

Nicholls ends his piece with the comments from four Yemenis, including the young man and his mother in the picture, both of whom are proud and happy to see it winning the contest. Like him I find it hard to disagree with their verdict.

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