Fresh Insights and New Perspectives: World Press Photo 2016

World Press Photo recently announced the winners of its annual photo contest. This is a good thing for photography in general not just visual photojournalism as the event gets widely covered in mainstream media which gives photography and the important subjects documented by the winners increased air time in a crowded media space.

The event also provokes continuing discussions within photogrpahy about the power of photographs to effect social change and on the tension between subject matter and aesthetics, something which particularly troubles photojournalism.

This year, the overall winner was Warren Richardson for a black and white image of a man passing a baby through a razor wire fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border at Röszke.

Warren Richardson
A man passes a baby through the fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015 © Warren Richardson

The image was taken during the night, so with the little moonlight available our gaze is first drawn to the man’s face marked by tiredness, desperation, hope. It then moves to a baby being handed over (temporarily) to another man helping from the other side of a razor wire.

The image was described by the awarding jury as haunting, classic, and as incredibly visually powerful. And yes, it is all of these things.

The absence of colour our directs full attention to the fathers face and we may begin to recognise to a very small degree his present pain and struggle. The absence of colour also draws attention to the other major structure in this image, the razor wire fence. It divides the two men and forces the separation of a father with his young child.

Here the fence can be seen as representing Hungary. It is a physical embodiment the Hungarian state’s right to control its borders and to protect its citizenry and conversely its right to extert control and oppression towards non-citizens.

When initial celebrations of the winning image subside it is important to ask: what fresh insights and new perspectives about the refugee crisis can be found in this image? This is a question posed back from the World Press Photo’s stated aims. Is it enough to select, elevate, and display a photograph to generate new ways of thinking about what it depicts? I suspect the answer to this question is very often, no, even though I would like it to be very often, yes.

The winning image has been called classic and timeless, a compliment to the photograph’s formal qualities. However, the subject matter too could accurately be described as classic and timeless. Which is something much less complimentary and perhaps harder to deal with photographically. A more specific question to ask is, what does it mean to see this man not as a refugee or migrant, but as a citizen with rights?

Photographs can reliably pull moments from time and in their stillness remind us of our shared humanity. The intimate moment of paternal co-operation between the two men shown in this image is something to be celebrated. It reassures us that in moments of need we humans will help each other out. It is a second form of hope found in the image’s title, Hope for a new Life.

This intimacy and emotion captured here contrasts with the glaring lack of intimacy between the people involved in the construction of the border fence, from government officials commissioning the work, to contractors and soldiers charged with the building and policing of it. Their actions are not personal or intimate they are located elsewhere.

Why is it that this man should not move freely to seek a safer better life? What right does anyone have to prevent him?

As viewers we stand on the Hungarian side of the fence, with the father and child in this moment still on the other side and in need of assistance. We might feel empathy or solidarity with this man, or instead, we might feel fear for what he signals: overwhelming numbers of immigrants and refugees, terrorists, or a alien/non-western culture.

Photographs do not necessarily challenge our prejudices and existing concerns, something they need to do generate fresh insights and new perspectives.

We need to hear the story of these two men. I hope that Richardson does find them. We also need to hear the story of this child, in 20 or so years time, to fully understand the consequences of this moment.

Fortunately, photography is uniquely placed to mark a moment in time and to then draw lines through time. So perhaps new perspectives generated by this photograph are yet to unfold and that is all we can ask of it today.