Photo: Civilians escape from a fire at a house destroyed by the air attack in the Luhanskaya village. © Valery Melnikov, Rossiya Segodnya. Title: Black Days Of Ukraine
“Post-truth,” which was chosen as Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016, is the very thing tried to define: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Propaganda by any other name would simply be…more of the same.
Perhaps the word appeals to those whose held fast to their illusions of some great Fourth Estate, able to disregard the consistent expression of disinformation and bias because it wasn’t directed at them. Oh, but how the tables have turned, and new words are created to disguise the new fictions from the old. Certainly there is an objectivity—but who perceives it, and by what means? And who, with the power to report, would dare deny their own inherent subjectivities? Wouldn’t we be far better served without such claims?
Truth be told, ambiguity is discomforting. So much that one needs to consider; no simple answers here. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald understood, “”The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Which bring us to World Press Photo 17 (Schilt), the new paperback that catalogues the best works of photojournalism made during 2016, as chosen by the World Press Photo Foundation. The book features some of the most unforgettable pictures made in what was most assuredly a strange and disturbing year. An exhibition of work from the book is currently on view at De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam, now through July 9, 2017.
The book cover features the 2017 Photo of the Year: Burhan Ozbilici’s photograph of Mevlüt Mert Altintas moments after the assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara on December 19, 2016. The murder occurred while the Russian ambassador was giving a speech during a press conference that celebrated the artistic collaboration between the two nations. Mevlüt Mert Altintas, a 22-year-old off duty police officer working security for the event, killed the ambassador in front of a room of video cameras and journalists.
Ozbilici’s photograph of a murder’s triumphant moment, with his kill laid out at his feet, was a controversial choice for the win. In the 60-year history of the awards, it was only the third time the image of an assassination was recognized. Stuart Franklin, Chair of the 2017 World Press Photo Award, wrote an essay for The Guardian in which he revealed his protest against the choice, explaining, “Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.”
Here we circle back to the issue at hand: can we escape the inherent propaganda of reportage? What gets photographed and what does not are as important subjects for consideration as what gets published and what does not. We can only begin to unravel the nature of illusion when we recognize our complicity in it, and see beyond the emotional bond we feel to an idea.
Take Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of Iesha Evans standing tall in nothing but a sundress and slippers, peacefully awaiting the advance of two police officers in full riot gear during a protest against the extrajudicial assassination of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The photograph, which was awarded first prize in the category of Contemporary Issues, is one that speaks a very specific message about the state of the union.
There are two ways of seeing the same image, depending on whether you identify with Evans or the unidentified police, and each of these interpretations is grounded in a pre-existing set of beliefs. Bachman’s photograph simply reinforces what you already think. That is the challenge of photojournalism on its deepest level: can an image transcend subjectivity? Perhaps we should consider it does not. Then we wouldn’t need words like “post-truth” to describe the news, because we’d be inclined to question everything we see and hear, knowing information is only as credible as its sources.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.