Today’s world is saturated with photographs, as it is with cameras thanks to mobile phone technology that ensures that cameras are in the hands of millions of people around the world on a daily basis. Photography has become a part of most people’s lives in some way in all but the most isolated parts of the planet – whether through producing or ‘consuming’ images. Without this ‘democratisation’ of photography, and social media’s role in that process, the recent uprisings and revolutions across the Arab world, particularly in areas which were hard to reach for accredited photo-journalists, may not have been covered so widely.
Yet even amongst all of this imagery, in-depth documentary photography still possesses the power to present sometimes seemingly complex and often disturbing social and political issues in a thought-provoking and digestible format.
Some of the world’s best photography is recognised annually through a series of high-profile international awards, and as instability continues to bring turmoil across the Middle East various works contextualising the region have been recognised amongst this year’s winners.
In February the World Press Photo of the Year (WPP) was awarded to Australian photographer Warren Richardson’s for his moving image of a refugee child being passed through a barbed wire fence to a Syrian refugee on the Hungary-Serbia border. Stylistically, the WPP winner is a classic image, yet Richardson’s photo is sadly also timeless – it could be reflecting a human consequence of various historic man-made conflicts. In this sense, it reminds us that as a race, human beings seem not to learn as we allow history to repeat itself. Or maybe, rather, that global instability continues to be driven by those who benefit from it whilst people of various nationalities, races and religions continue to suffer because of it.
The winner of the Istanbul Photo Awards, although very different in style to the WPP winner is intrinsically linked by context. Abd Doumany’s image of an injured Syrian child waiting for treatment at a makeshift hospital in the rebel held area of Douma is incredibly painful. The young boy’s eyes plead for help as blood streams down his face. It is a portrait that provides context to the refugee crisis whilst silently pleading for something to be done to ensure that nobody must continue to live, or die, in this way.
On April 21st, the photography world’s eyes were on London as the eagerly anticipated Sony World Photography Awards (SWPA) finally announced its professional winners. Officially the world’s largest photography award, this year more than 230,000 entries were received across a range of categories and entry levels.
Iranian photographer Asghar Khamseh was awarded the prestigious L’Iris d’Or Professional Photographer of the Year prize as well as First Place in the Contemporary Issues category for his ‘Fire of Hatred’ series. In Khamseh’s work, mainly female survivors of acid attacks stand in front of uniform black backgrounds. Despite bearing witness to horrific injuries caused by acid attacks, these powerful yet ‘quiet’ portraits capture the dignity of the sitters. With this strength, stimulating empathy rather than pity, Khamseh’s work captures the essence of documentary-style photography.
Greek photographer Angelos Tzortzinis took First Place in the Current Affairs category for his ‘In Search of the European Dream’ series which looks at the refugee crisis on the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos. Tzortzinis’ images, often shot in low light, explore human resilience and strength as well as pain. As a series – the format in which documentary photography shines – they explore different aspects of the refugee story on the Greek islands and it is in this aspect that their power lies, highlighting parts of the tragedy which often remain ignored. The series begins with the pain of the refugees’ arrival of on boats. Another image show’s phone’s being checked by refugees on night-time beaches – maybe telling loved ones that they have survived the latest stage of their journey. Later images examine refugees’ attempts to register on the islands, whilst the final image of hundreds on empty lifejackets on a moonlit beach reminds viewers of lives saved and lost, and wonders where survivors have gone and will end up once their desperate journeys end.
Also focusing on the MENA region, the runner-up to Tzortzinis in the Current Affairs category was a series produced by the French/Italian photography duo Andrea and Magda. Utilising their trademark style, the duo’s ‘Sinai Park’ series looks at the remnants of Egypt’s Sinai tourist industry which they describe as “a pipe dream shattered when terrorism and national instability decimated visitor numbers…The architecture, artificial and naive, reveals a disconnection with local cultural reality, with facilities designed for a global clientele.”
Very different in style and content to other pieces mentioned here, ‘Sinai Park’ nevertheless reflects significant issues in the region through these impositions on the region’s landscape and culture, and by extension politics. The imposed and ugly ‘development’ in the Sinai suggests yet another intricacy of the post-colonial period.
A wider look at the winners of the Sony World Photography Awards’ documentary categories, and the awards exhibition that is currently showing at London’s Somerset House, throws up often interlinked human issues from all corners of the planet. Whether through Andrew Burton’s powerful documentary on the Baltimore Uprising, the human and environmental cost of industry as seen through the lens’ of Espen Rasmussen and Kevin Frayer, or the collective alliances of Kenyan women against genital mutilation documented by Simona Ghizzoni, much of the documentary work reminds us, through both global and localised stories, that various powers continue to try to dictate the lives of others across the world under various guises aimed at self-interest rather than collective good.
The range of powerful documentary photography that can be seen in the SWPA winners exhibition is proof that despite the global bombardment of imagery to which we are all subjected, photography can still unravel and challenge today’s world and must continue to be utilised to do so.
Such work does not acquiesce to the cult of celebrity that paparazzi-style press photography feeds, but rather it honours and respects the lives of ordinary men, women and children around the world and their daily struggles. The SWPA exhibition will simultaneously inspire, anger, amuse, and enlighten those who make the journey to see it, and the documentary work on show reminds us that all our lives are somehow interlinked.
** The Sony World Photography Awards exhibition can be seen at Somerset House, London until May 8th. Tickets can be reserved here.