The World Press Photo 2013 exhibition, currently on display at London's Southbank Centre is a tribute to a diverse global civilisation pre-occupied with ceaseless challenges, chaos, celebration and reflection. From homicides to war, the human condition and homosexuality to great achievements, sex trafficking to acid-burning of women, the common thread running underneath these photographs, selected out of over 103,000 entries worldwide, is the deep seated human desire to live out a life of irrevocable dignity. Where will the human dignity be found? How is it to be established? Why have human lives become so cheap that they can be bought easily in the supermarkets of guns and missiles, without hesitation? These are some key questions raised by the photographs on display.
What gets reflected out of many photographs is the state of affairs where war remains the most powerful and critical institution in the world to make "peace". It is being carried out every day, in different geographies, and all we can deplore is the policy-making filled with hunger for power along with self-glorified interests. Alessio Romenzi's photographs from Syria, which won the first prize in general news stories category, capture howling mothers and daughters of a nation that must have frantically counted over 60,000 dead bodies.
In Dominic Nahr's photograph, which at first appears to be the sculpture of a mud-painted soldier with a deformed body falling from the sky, is actually a dead soldier's body floating in a leaked pool of oil, lucidly reflecting blue skies. This body increases the number of people killed in North and South Sudan's conflict to over two million; the soldier was killed because a disputed oilfield was more important compared to his flesh, eyes and bones. This photograph won the third prize in general news singles category.
Ebrahim Noroozi's photographs, which won the first prize in observed portraits stories category, reveal how women remain the instruments of control and abuse in some sections of Iranian society, like in many other countries. Noroozi captures the story of Somayeh Mehri (29 years old) and her daughter Rana Afghanipour (3 years old) as they walk hand in hand around Mehri's father's home, the only place she feels safety and comfort. Mehri's physically abusive husband, after learning of her intentions to divorce, threw acid on his wife and daughter whilst they were asleep. Their faces now resemble distorted round pieces of poorly sculptured clay.
USA is one of the biggest worldwide exporter of films, TV shows, music and popular culture but its own story of millions in poverty, street crimes and killings are not to be found in these commercial media. Paolo Pellegrin captures high crime and murder rates in the 'Crescent' area of New York State through four pictures about police, criminals, arms, drugs and blood. His photographs won the second prize in the general news stories category, a well deserved accolade since these pictures offer a perspective that local cultures worldwide, although they have a choice to relish high-calibre USA media, should not homogenise themselves on a single-sided commercial romanticism of big lifestyle and buildings. Reality, as Pellegrin shows, is different on some streets.
The winning photograph by Paul Hansen, of emotional and angry crowds running in Gaza City with the bodies of two dead children and their father, opens this exhibition space as it captures and sends out a lot of noise. The noise of this photograph, although created by an Israeli missile strike, is consistently maintained by other pictures in some form or the other, from tragic and thought-provoking to constructive and uplifting.
One of the goals of the World Press Photo Prizes, as explained by the chair of its 2013 jury Santiago Lyon, is that the "... winning images should reflect the global nature of the entries...". A picture of the world that is just at chaos and conflict would be imbalanced and unpleasant, therefore, a defined presence of positive and uplifting photographs in this exhibit.
Wei Seng Chen's photograph of a bull race in West Sumatra, Indonesia, captures two synchronised bulls leading a man as muddy waters splash like confetti to celebrate their victory. This indigenous sport dates back to over 400-years and it is uplifting to see not only the intensity of determination put in by the man photographed, but also that there are no commercial sponsorships to sell us notions of self-importance and self-worth.
At last, the photographs that cannot go without mention are by Ananda van der Pluijm, who picked up her camera to get to know her half-brother after having lived away from him with no contact for ten years. Eighteen-year-old Martin, who has no qualifications and is jobless, is elegantly and adorably photographed by Pluijm; his eyes reveal there is a lot to be spoken by a playful young boy. The photograph won third prize under the observed portraits stories category.
Pluijm's use of the camera as an instrument for dialogue, friendship, love, care and affection undoubtedly reveals an alternative perspective to the ever-important institution of war: photography, dialogue and the arts. Can countries in conflict send photographers instead of armed soldiers to understand the concerns and wishes of the opposite sides?
World Press Photo 2013 exhibition, amongst other purposes, should serve as a compelling evidence for global governments to establish a 'Cameras, Not Bullets' programme.