Tangles of young bodies in tie-die and dreadlocks lounge on vivid green grass. A young woman, her face criss-crossed with mud, smokes, sending whisps of smoke over the crowd. This photo – one in a series of portraits and candid shots taken by Kitra Cahana at the neo-hippie Rainbowland Gathering in New Mexico – goes beyond documenting the festival’s free-and-easy Woodstock atmosphere: lighting and composition turn it into a timeless archetype of youth and summer.
This image (pictured above) is one of 63 selected for World Press Photo 10 from over 100,000 news, features, arts and sports photographs published in 2009. These photographs are the best because they do more than illustrate a story. Take Michele Boronzi’s: a man, in a blue shift and masked in a white muslin hood, is participating in separatist protests in Kashmir. You’d expect an image of chaos, but despite a few small figures blurred by motion, the image is calm. The man is bathed in cool light, his hand is raised to his face, and his fingers, curled around a rock, look strikingly like the hand of someone in quiet contemplation. Not your typical demo photograph: the commotion cropped, it transforms a man about to hurl stones into Rodin’s Thinker.
Photojournalism like Cahana’s and Boronzi’s transforms its subject matter. In World Press Photo 10, blankets laid to dry by Paris’s homeless become body bags (Pierre Olivier Deschamps); an aerial image of the Rose Bowl becomes an abstract painting (Mark Holtzman); rusted, copper-colored oranges, polluted by run-off from an illegal Cadmium plant in China, become planets viewed from outer space (Fang Qianhua); and the Toyko subway at rush hour is made erotic with an image of a woman, eyes closed, nails manicured, pressed against a steamy car window (Michael Wolf).
Others – like Gian Tubbeh’s close-ups, which use warped colours and double exposure to tell a story about a boy with autism – visualize their subject matter’s perspective. And some resemble exemplary works of contemporary fine art photography: Annie van Gemert’s portraits of ambiguously gendered youth, in particular, capture the lighting and tone of Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach series.
Not only visually and conceptually striking, these photos address less-talked-about topics – male anorexia, warfare in West Africa, the decay of industrial towns in western America – or capturing chronic front-pagers (the war in Gaza, American forces in Afghanistan, shanty towns in Kenya) in fresh ways.
World Press Photo 10 enraptures, informs and visually seduces. Whether photography is art has long been debated, and whether photojournalism is art continues to be battled over. The works in this show are part narrative, part news flash, part aesthetic rush. The conclusion? Photojournalism is art – a particularly relevant, powerful type. And 2009 was a brilliant year.
WORLD PRESS PHOTO 10 | Through July 1