Usually at the end of every year we have a series of images paraded before us that are supposedly ‘the images of the year’. If the publication nominating them is a journalistic enterprise, we tend to see images that convey some of the more newsworthy events of the year. Other’s such as National Geographic pull from the images that were created for their stories, but tend to be nominated along lines of photographic prowess. Admittedly I am prone to an introspective cynicism at the start of the year, but found myself rather depressed at this year’s crop of images. Not because they weren’t good. No, in fact the imagery is brilliant. Rather, it is because of the response to the imagery that my usual levels of cynicism were bested.
Let’s start with the almost hollywood like image of the Russian ambassador to Turkey’s assassin by Burhan Ozbilici. The image is brilliant. It really is. As a Facebook friend opened his post: "Is this not the best press photograph of the year?" After the initial reaction to the image though, I was startled to notice that the comments on social media around the image centred on the photographer and the image as an image, NOT on the newsworthiness of the image itself. Commentators were more concerned about the lighting and the angle and whether the photographer had been brave than about what the image depicted. It was fist-bumps all round at the phenomenal capture; almost as if this was a picture shot of wildlife or an epic landscape in a storm, rather than the fact that someone lost their life to an assassin’s bullet.
Then there is the July photograph by Reuters photographer Jonathan Bachman during the Black Lives Matter rally in the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of a woman standing gracefully as two armour-clad riot policemen run towards her. This is another image that is almost perfect enough to have been staged. Once again, it was fist-bumps all around on social media and the internet as the world congratulated the photographer. But what about the actual event? In general conversation, most people who had seen the image didn’t even know what it was depicting, let alone what had happened to the woman in the image. For those who want to know, the woman is Ieshia Evans. She was detained for 24 hours but was unharmed. She works as a nurse. The power of the image is in the numerous contrasts depicted in the image from movement to stillness, dark to light, open to congested. It is a wonderful image with meaning flowing out of every pixel practically. Again though, and maybe it’s Google and the ways that it curates my internet viewing experience, but the reaction was more to the image and the photographer than to the event and what it depicted.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Going through some of the lists of powerful images of 2016 (just google it), there are a great number of images that are truly moving such as that of the injured child sitting stunned in a hospital ward in Aleppo. It just seems to me that the event is less important than the image in 2016. Arguably the image of three year old Aylan Kurdi lying washed up on the shore in September 2015 was one of, if not the most, powerful images of 2015. It felt then that the actual image played second fiddle to the event. The image highlighted the event and drew attention to the plight of conflict displaced families. It is sad that despite this the rhetoric in Europe and North America has been to shut down borders. Yet the images of Aylan Kurdi poke at the decisions of global leaders and the politics of exclusion far more so than the images that have gained such traction in 2016.
The crafted image of spectacle again came to the fore with Time’s cover image of U.S President elect, Donald Trump when he was named Person of The Year by the magazine. Most of the controversy revolved around the layout of the image and the placement of the ‘M’ such that it almost depicts ‘devil’ horns. This is not a new controversy, and Time Magazine has been taken to task on previous occasions when the ‘M’ looks at first glance to be horns (Bill Clinton’s visage back in January 1993 looks far more purposely placed than Trumps in my opinion). Rather the controversy was around the final image itself. Aside from the recognition that we tend to read what we want to in an image, I would say that the picture created by Nadav Kander is far from flattering. The New York writer and editor Helen Rosner took to Twitter to point out that the image is distinctively lit and styled like those of political portraits from the 1940s. Needless to say the image is dark, forbidding and not a little bit creepy.
The take away from all of this is the way that images are being used more and more to dissemble partisan messages. The problem is that the hero is the photographer; when the hero used to be those depicted. Maybe it’s part of the new social-media driven narcissism that I keep reading about. Whatever it is, it seems odd that more and more the object of the image, isn’t news, but the image itself. I am the first person to say that an image is more than a factual recording, after all I am constantly trying to create images that convey my emotive state at the time of the picture’s creation. The images we are seeing now though seem to be divorced from context. We gloss through the world at the speed of the swipe on a smartphone, stopping only when the image is arresting enough. Apparently, to be arresting enough to grab our nano-second attention it has to be crafted such that it deserves ‘fist-bumps’ to the photographer. Forget about the dead guy lying on the floor.