During the summer I saw the exhibition of the WPP Award, one of the most prestigious photo journalistic awards in the world. Undoubtedly the best known to the public and photographers considered a great showcase. Thousands of professionals participate every year and the jury works for weeks to evaluate almost one hundred thousand photos. This jury that changes from time to time is made up of expert photo editors, curators and photographers. Once the prizes have been assigned, a traveling exhibition in dozens of cities around the world and a catalog are also created.
For some years now a large panel has been exhibited at the entrance of the museums where there is the exhibition, with all the photographs that from 1960 to today have been awarded as best single photos and among these there are images that have made the history of the photo world journalism, images that have become part of our imagination. It is also relevant that they are essentially European or American photographers, some Asian or South American.
Over the years, numerous Italians have received mentions, from the award-winning Pellegrin, Venturi and Zizzola to the youngest such as Masturzo, Palazzi and others.
In addition, for some years there have been more and more female reporters among the winners.
This year, due to the covid, the number of photographers who showed up decreased and the photos sent were about seventy thousand for over four thousand participants. (Twenty thousand fewer images than in the previous edition).
The vision of this exhibition is always a great stimulus despite the drama of the stories because everything that revolves inside, around and sometimes behind the scenes of the awards offers opportunities for reflection and new knowledge.
For example, the discovery of the Turkish photographer Sabiha Cimen in the last edition that a few days after winning the wpp entered the famous Magnum agency, or the statements of the president of the jury who four years ago opposed the decision to win a a photo that presented a murder because in his opinion it was deceptive or the exclusion of the photographer Giovanni Troilo well after the awarding of a prize for falsifying captions.
An aspect that I always find interesting is also the study of the aesthetics of the winning images and the influence that there is on these of the cinematographic imagination but above all the strong ties with classical painting. This is an important point in this type of photography because it is linked to the idea of the representation of pain that is handed down over time with precise concepts and aesthetics.
This time, however, things went differently. It was particularly difficult to identify works of depth and originality among the dozens of photos on display but above all some aspects were particularly important for the students present at the visit. Seeing images that told of the pandemic created a certain resonance. Thus a double type of reaction took place; on the one hand of those who have been touched by it without being able to distance themselves from it and resulting in a certain sense crushed by it, on the other hand those who, in the face of knowledge, have looked with greater elaboration and a certain detachment.
With regard to all this, the fact that in the last year we have spent much more time indoors, in front of PCs, smartphones or televisions, where the amount of images we have seen has been much greater than in the past, should not be underestimated; probably this process has brought about addiction and normalized many visions that in our eyes have lost their “charm” despite the attempt by the visual narrators to construct them effectively.
The most worrying aspect was the presence in almost all the award-winning works of a strong negativity in the stories told, a problem that is actually almost structural year after year. Evidently it is still impossible to get out of certain ideas and “the drama”, always told in the same way, we could venture “to be in fashion”. Some questions we asked ourselves help us to orient ourselves in a different way and make us understand how normally certain topics are offered to us by those who provide information.
Why does the choice of so many photographers tend towards tragic themes and the way of narrating them never seems to contemplate the possibility of solving the problems faced? Why, where it was chosen to tell, for example, about the spread of the virus, did not go to reward also those works that have told of the researchers who have managed to isolate it? Why was it not told about the first patient recovered? Probably the question is upstream, where it is precisely the photographers themselves who are not able to look differently.
It should also be remembered that generally the thought of the photojournalist is to denounce negative facts according to a more or less acceptable ethics through a desired neutrality of point of view so as not to alter the concreteness of the reality in front of him. However, we ask ourselves why, despite all the best intentions, a profoundly unsuccessful attitude is almost always perceived.
This negative thought is difficult to describe clearly but it is as if it corresponds to something deeper, to a type of atmosphere of light, to a style, to a rhetorical, basically apathetic way of framing human beings, with the participation of ‘observer we would say double and non-harmonic. What is the “right way” is certainly not easy to define and I do not want to think that it is something that can be codified and imposed, but I wonder what it means to denounce dramas without having a deep idea of resolving possibilities in one’s mind and how never the feeling coming out of these exhibitions always seems to be of great discouragement.
It is an impossibility of the observer who is denounced and exalted by the vision or is it perhaps a thought that is indirectly created by the narrator of the story who poses as a chosen one, chosen to spread a communication that actually goes to convey a fear? It should be remembered that the photojournalist is part of a complex chain and his work can be seen if selected and presented in a magazine which in turn is done by people who think in a certain way. The newspaper itself, of which these people are part, even though it declares itself independent, is itself part of more or less powerful political consortiums that influence the editorial line upstream. All this represents a huge chain in which ideas circulate which in order to “pass” must be accepted by those who represent the top of a hierarchical scale.
So the reporter goes on to create a work that in order to be sold and disseminated “must like and be in line with the thought of the newspaper. At this point it is difficult to speak of a true independence of a thought. I remember a student who asked during a lesson: “So it’s as if photojournalists are actually retrievers?”. Certainly a somewhat strong expression but in most cases we can say that it is so; the newspaper / owner throws the bone at the dog and wants it to be brought back.
Thus one wonders what kind of content the thousands of images discarded by the WPP jurors had.
Finally, the last aspect considered was the relationship between images and words. Each regulation photo-graph must submit its own photographs to the competition accompanied by articulated captions.
The description in words of an image is a complex moment in the work of a photographer and requires considerable professionalism and a good ability to synthesize. Despite these photographs were made by professionals who proceed with the idea of allowing the observer an almost immediate understanding following the 5 W rule, (where, what, who, when and why) we have verified that without reading the captions this understanding was in many cases absent. The famous phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been so drastically overturned.
At the end of the visit, the feeling was particularly negative and new questions arose. Why go back there again, but most of all, what sense does it make to tell the facts that happen in the world again in this way if each of us, thanks to a smartphone, can instantly share images on a planetary level? What kind of new approach are the photo journalists of tomorrow, or even of today, called to have?
In the meantime, dozens of newspapers close or are forced to reinvent themselves on the web.
As for us, however, since we don’t think it’s right not to find a good aspect in the stories we discover, we were able to identify something that showed us that even in such a sad landscape there is a positive seed. Russian photographer Alisa Martynova made a story about African migrants in Italy with a particular red light that intrigued us during the visit. Among the various re-strokes, a photo with raindrops in the night illuminated by a flash caught our attention; thanks to the fact that we were unable to decipher their meaning, we went to look for the corresponding caption which reads as follows: “The drops of water symbolize the storms described in the stories of migrants”. In a moment in which the circulation of images “taken from our reality” merges in a few seconds with the very moment of their becoming lost in the sea of social networks, finally something different seems to emerge; the word “symbolize” and the idea of a metaphor, perhaps, presents us with a precious key on which to think we can build a new way of telling.
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