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The Silences We Maintain

11th September 2002. I was at Heathrow Airport, flying home to Dhaka.
Friends had warned me against flying that day, but I wasn't too
bothered and looked forward to the empty seats I could stretch out
on. In place of the flight notices, the loudspeakers made an unusual
announcement. It was a call for a minute's silence for the people who
died at the World Trade Centre and year ago. A minute's silence, and
then it was business as usual.

The piece that follows was written in February 2003, in the week
following the judging of World Press. Before the invasion of Iraq,
before the advent of embedded journalism. Later at the award ceremony
at the Oude Kurk, I was impressed by Wolffensperger's speech
(Chairman of the Board, World Press Photo), made in the presence of
the Dutch Prime Minister, where he clearly stated his position
regarding the attack on journalists and the media coverage during the
invasion. I was left wondering however, why we as a community have
never called for that minute's silence, for those killed in
Afghanistan or in Iraq, or the industry's silence on the killing of
its workers. We are responsible for the words that we speak, and the
images we produce. Who will take the responsibility for the silences
we maintain?

Much is made of the figures, but this is not a numbers game. While
the sheer volume of photographs is daunting, it is still in the end a
qualitative choice. How does one weigh one photograph against
another? What makes one compelling image more special than another?
What criteria do juries use to determine which one is best?

The parameters for the World Press Photo of the year are known; a
photograph showing outstanding visual qualities and representing a
news situation of global importance. News photographs are often taken
on the run, in situations of extreme stress, often in situations of
danger. Only outstanding photographers are able to create powerful,
moving, beautifully constructed images even under such conditions.
But their qualities need to combine with outstanding news-value to
create the most talked about press image of the year.

2002 was a year of waiting. Waiting for UN resolutions to be applied
equally to all. Waiting for aggressors to be punished. Waiting for a
war that the world abhorred but seemed unable to stop. Missing were
the moments that news networks paid millions to cover. Disasters in
western countries lacked significant death tolls. Nothing significant
had happened in the countries that mattered.

That is not to say that nothing had happened, or that the world was
at peace. In a world where all lives are not equal, some lives are
easily forgotten. Their daily plight does not count. Their struggles
are insignificant. No war machines come to their rescue. Unless
material interests intervene.

But riots, earthquakes and indiscriminate bombings have taken place,
and occupation continues. And there have been photographers who have
been there. At a time when defence pools, restricted access, and
editorial policy define the perimeters of journalism, some
photographers have gone against the grain and covered stories which
should have been news but weren't, about people who should have
mattered but didn't.

Clinging to the trousers of his dead father, a young boy cries for a
loss that is as universal as it is personal. The image talks of
humankind's eternal struggle against nature, and a community's
ability to stand by the afflicted. Yet, amidst all these people, the
young man is alone in his misery. The death he mourns might not
matter to a world that doesn't care, but to him, the world might well
have stopped. And one photograph preserved that moment, a silent
witness of an emptiness that speaks to us all. One photographer takes
on the challenge of questioning our definitions of news.

As for the judging itself, it was a complex, passionate, fervent
affair. Time and time again, we were humbled by someone's insight
into a moment, that had completely passed us by. Again and again, our
zone of comfort was invaded. We were shaken into responding to an
argument that questioned the values that we had always considered
unshakeable. Our tools of measurement were cast aside. We stood
naked, our prejudices exposed.

The photographers too stretched us. Images that explored the gaps in
our visual spaces, played with our sense of balance. War was
presented through lingering traces. Political systems presented
through emptiness and solid structures. Consumerism and decadence
exposed through garish images, unashamedly rejecting the classical
norms of image construction. Tender moments rendered without
sentimentality. And of course those stark images, where the
photojournalist, at the right place at the right time, but hopefully
for not too long, returned with the horrors of what man does to man.

When the credibility of our media, shrouded in propaganda, struggles
for survival, a few brave women and men continue to report the news
that is no longer newsworthy. This contest salutes their courage.

Shahidul Alam
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003

February 21, 2003 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , | Leave a comment