Capturing Crises

AP Photo/Philipp Guelland
By Lauren Meryl Williamson

Bibi Aisha’s melancholic beauty is magnificent to behold; her personal tragedy is easy to see: the 18-year-old’s ears and nose were cut off by Taliban members, as punishment for running away from her Taliban husband and seeking refuge at her parents’ home in Afghanistan. But it is the artistry and photo-journalistic talents of Jodi Bieber that captured the story in one single shot. The power of the portrait is that it allows the entire world to view the type of justice that strict Sharia law imposes upon women. The intimate, provocative piece won the 2010 World Press Photo competition and now serves as the centrepiece for the organization’s 2011 showcase. The other 171 images in the collection - some graphic, some baffling- also elicit visceral reactions, leaving exhibit-goers speechless, grappling for words to convey the emotions stirred.

Last year’s 54th annual contest - touring now - received 108,000 entries from photographers all over the world, showcasing the most political, galvanizing, and disastrous moments of the year such as the Haiti earthquake, the volcanoes in Iceland and Indonesia, secret abortions in Kenya and the Love Parade stampede in Germany. The competition, known as the world’s “largest and most prestigious press photography contest”, was judged by a panel of globally recognized artists, curators and editors including UK notables such as photographer Harry Borden, Sophie Stafford of BBC Wildlife Magazine and National Portrait Gallery curator Terence Pepper.

Some of the more gripping images include photos of the Pakistan floods. An emaciated little girl lies on a dirt floor, her eyes closed and her body covered in flies. You think she is dead but find rather that she is sleeping in the muggy heat and suffering through the wretched conditions endured by the Pakistanis as they were forced to flee from their homes.

Many journalists submitted shots of forced migration, bringing to the fore the hardships felt by families who uprooted their lives, lived as vagabonds and moulded their lifestyles to assimilate into new cultures and countries. For so many it is a small price to pay in order to escape religious oppression, political insecurity and the destruction of war. 

Yet nothing can prepare you for the graphic images in other sections of the photo exhibit.

Pictures of the Haitian earthquake aftermath illustrate the emotional strength of the local community as members collected all the dead bodies into piles while sifting through the town’s rubble. Similar photos came from Tibet, where monks stumbled through rows of Tibetans killed by an earthquake, in order to prepare their bodies for cremation. In Indonesia, photojournalists captured images of people seemingly frozen by the ash of a devastating volcano that hit last year.

As hard as it is to stomach these images, viewing them sparks an interesting media debate as they stir ethical questions about whether or not a journalist has a responsibility to intervene or an obligation to capture the truth without interfering.

Yet as descriptive as photos are, some of the exhibit’s pieces do not provide enough visual context and hence rely heavily on the accompanying written text. Other photo series in the collection, including the portraits of Irish women at a local fair, appear contrived and bizarre. But the exhibit was not without its banalities. Also on display were photos taken to represent the growing social media culture. There were shots of digital MySpace users taking their own profile pictures. While these images added diversity to the collection, they also created a jarring departure from the overarching thematic tone of the exhibit.

Importantly, the World Press Photo collection offers a glimpse of the other side of life, beyond the senseless violence and destruction. The heroic acts that led to the death of a Chinese oil worker - presented in a series of several photographs never seen in western media - was touching. The man drowned while trying to save his colleagues after an emergency on an ocean oil platform. It is powerful to see the hero’s colleague mourn the loss at the memorial service. Despite the strength normally associated with his patriotic uniform, the colleague’s face is twisted in agony with tears rolling down his cheeks. Candid moments such as these remind us of our own humanity; it gives hope knowing that the world is united through universal values like bravery, sacrifice and love.

Moreover, the exhibit offers a telling reflection of our own media consumption habits. Photographs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were noticeably absent from the collection in Amsterdam.  These conflicts were likely not high on the journalism coverage agendas in 2010 because the longer a story plays out, the less “newsworthy” it is for most international (western) media entities. Foreign aid seems to operate in much the same way: crises with immediate impact, such as earthquakes, receive an outpouring of financial support, yet the more insidious crises (such as droughts, floods or drawn out conflicts) are often forgotten or deemed hopeless, and hence unworthy of funding. Herein lies the phenomenal benefit of photography: it immediately conveys a message and requires an equally immediate response.

Part of the exhibit’s success at its Amsterdam locale must be attributed to the architecture of the Oude Kerk, or the Old Church, which is nestled in the heart of the city. The towering 14th century ceilings, hypnotic series of arches and breathtaking stained glass windows provide an atmosphere of solitude and reverence - ideal for quiet contemplation  - which is crucial when you spend several hours face-to-face with some of the worst atrocities of the year and the most political pressing issues of our time.

The exhibit challenges your knowledge of the world, and it will compel you to share your new insight with others. Yet upon leaving the exhibit the realization will strike that talking doesn’t seem to do the photos justice. Donating money to the causes also seems an inadequate response. You will walk away with a lingering feeling of helplessness, with one question on your mind: Are we doing enough?


5 June 2011


The photo exhibit in Amsterdam will be showing through 19 June, followed by exhibitions in Spain, Germany and Lebanon in the coming months. For official dates and locations of the 2011 global tour, visit the official World Press Photo website.


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Philipp Guelland