The world is pressing in on me

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I hope that, by looking at my photographs, people will develop a better understanding of the world around them and more empathy with the people in it. – Lucian Perkins

I feel decidedly unsettled after visiting the World Press Photo Exhibition.  I realise the images are meant to affect the viewer but I wasn’t expecting to walk away so heavy hearted.

Many of the images shone a light on human tragedy, on life around the globe, on the pointless nonsensical nature of war, terror, hatred and force.  In the past I have walked away having been moved by the resilience of the human spirit, triumph against the odds, and the rawness of human emotion.  This year I found myself contemplating the role of the photo journalist and the personal lines they  cross to deliver to us news from around the world in an effort to inform and move us.

I couldn’t help but shudder.  What must it be like to photograph human bodies having fallen from aeroplanes, been slaughtered at play or left to die in fields? I contemplated the range of emotions that would surface when confronted with evil, hatred and violence such as that portrayed in a great majority of this year’s images. I cannot imagine how one keeps perspective, how one is not strongly impacted by the terror and horror of being present at such scenes.

I do not condemn.  I am agog. Startled into contemplation.  I cannot begin to place myself in their shoes to even get a glimpse of the courage and strength needed to shoot these images. Nor can I fathom the unrelenting turmoil, destruction and deprivation suffered by so many around the globe.

This year I was overwhelmed by the heaviness of the exhibition. Oh, there was variety, I know that as I sit here and reflect. I guess that’s why art is so subjective. I interacted with the images and those that stood out for me were the ones that burdened my heart.

I am haunted by Mark Metcalfe’s image of 25 year old cricketer Phillip Hughes being cradled by his mates after being struck on the head by a cricket ball.  This story made headlines in Australia. The country was shaken by the subsequent death of this young man several days later.  The tenderness with which these men attended to their friend was moving. Tears well even now as I recall the scene portrayed by Metcalfe.

Photographer Arash Khamooshi investigated public hangings in Iran. In one of his images an old woman, given permission to kick the chair from under the condemned man and send him to his death, chooses instead to slap him. The slap is a public declaration of forgiveness, thus saving the life of the man who took the life of her son. I am speechless.

An oasis amid the horror was Michele Palazzi’s photograph of a Mongolian mother and child at rest, in their tent. There was a gentleness to this photo that softened the blow the others had landed. I felt myself draw breath, not realising I’d been holding it as I moved from image to image.

The intent of the World Press Exhibition is to confront and provoke the viewer through visual story telling. This year I walked away feeling raw rather than uplifted. I can’t shake the images or the depths of depravity, sadness, and the heinous reality in which many of my fellow humans live.

Is it naive of me to give thanks for my life and the hand I’ve been dealt in the wake of what I’ve just viewed? Perhaps. But I am grateful and I thank God for my many, many blessings.

Is there more I can do to raise awareness, aide and improve the lives of those faced with tragedy and violence and circumstance? Perhaps there is. And so the exhibition has succeeded in moving me to tears, to think and to take action.

I congratulate the photojournalists for their moving, emotive and thought provoking work, the organisers of the exhibition for 60 years of insight and the Brisbane Powerhouse for hosting the display.

 

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8 thoughts on “The world is pressing in on me

  1. I felt as though I had walked beside you at the exhibition through your eloquent descriptions of the images. Shannyn where do you think the line between photography and exploitation should be drawn? Are we being intrusive when we look at these most emotional moments. I am so drawn to them, the scene, the story. Often I am left feeling that I should not be present. Have you ever felt that way?

    • Good question Sue. Where should the line be drawn? That’s a tough one. Photojournalists have a job to do and responsibility I guess to bring news to the world. However, I do often wonder if we need to be exposed so graphically to other people’s demise.

      When I was in Nepal in 2011 I visited the cremation cemetery by the river. Many tourists stood taking photos. I was dumbfounded by their insensitivity. I wondered if they would approve of people gathered at their loved ones graveside snapping holiday photos. I found the scene confronting, definitely. I sat for a while and watched the proceedings. That’s probably more ghoulish than taking photos. But I do remember having the strongest appreciation for life. In that moment I sensed the fragility and beauty of life and I was totally present, like never before.

      Isn’t that something? Your question prompted me to think deeper. Perhaps it’s the same for the photographers. Perhaps they too feel the same reverence for life, the same presence and that’s what helps them to go back time and again.

      Thank you for the insight Sue.

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