World Press Photo of the Year 2011

In a three-minute video on the World Press Photo website, Aidan Sullivan, chair of the photo contest jury, discusses the criteria behind the choice. He describes the “long process” by which the jury selected one winner, “the image that is going to sum up the events of the year,” from about 108,000 initial photos. He explains that this image ultimately won the jury’s allegiance because:

It was a very tender moment, a very quiet moment compared to all the turbulence that had come before it and after it. It just seemed to say to everybody: This is what it’s about, it’s about the people.

I’ve written about the World Press Photo contest before and look forward to seeing each year’s selections. What reason is there to doubt Sullivan’s sincerity, or that of any jury member, or that of the photographer who captured this image? It’s hard to quibble, also, with the rationale expressed. And yet.

And yet, I find myself dissatisfied with this choice. In a year that produced so many extraordinary and diverse images of Arabs, the contest winners are disappointingly conventional: Covered women (above and again here), a man crouching by a flag, men yelling, and, oh, more men fighting and running.

The photos themselves are all significant, graceful, even mesmerizing, but perhaps it is too much to ask any one image to be both exceptional and representative, prototypical but not at all stereotypical. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of women wearing hijab, niqab, burqa etc. in the region; I’ve photographed them myself (here, here, here and here); they’re everywhere though not everyone. Nor is it the fault of these photographers that none of the winning images challenge common perceptions about Arabs, but in a year when Arabs themselves have triumphed over and despite those perceptions, it is a serious lapse on the part of the jurors.

If they’d wanted to choose an image infused with the miraculous courage of the Arab Spring; an image that is exceptional but that does not claim to be and, indeed, is not representative of Arabs per se; an image that – precisely because it depicts the vanguard and not the masses – captures the longing for freedom, the possibility of transformation and the very real risk that the varied uprisings evoke; then one image, in particular, comes to mind, an image that I must admit would not have been eligible for the contest as currently defined because it is a self-portrait by an amateur – though it is roughly similar in composition to another winner.

Photographers record the moment but the winning photograph of such a prestigious competition must capture a mood and a mentality. This image (by Magda Alia al-Mahdi) surprises, provokes, even offends. This image, like the Arab Spring itself, poses a simple question that, nonetheless, crackles with urgency, a question that in itself may signal a seismic shift in the questioner and one that demands ongoing conversation much more than an answer:

Who are the Arabs?

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