I remember the last time I saw my Dad fully conscious before he died.
I was a brand new photographer. I had only bought a camera about eighteen months before I had my last conversation with him. And as I made my final visit to him before the life zapping operation he endured, I dragged with me a print of a photograph I had made of him and my Mum lying on their bed.
It is a beautiful photo. It was an ode to my parents relationship that had spanned many years. They were kind of interwoven into the really awful wallpaper in their bedroom and the cotton blanket that had covered my Dad’s legs. They were wrapped around one another through the years and the love and our family and the cancer that had wrapped around my Dad’s spine.
He had stopped walking the day I took the photo… The cancer had paralysed him. It was really shit that a man like that lost the use of his legs. My Dad. He always was a sporty, devil may care type. It was the ultimate betrayal that he suffered in life.
To not be able to stand when he eventually had to say goodbye to his children.
I remember the look on my Dad’s face just before he died. He knew it was life and death. The real stuff… the “deep six” as he called it, was coming for him.
Warren Richardson won this year’s World Press Photo of the Year with an image that expressed what I saw on my Dad’s face that night. His photo of a refugee handing over his baby child to some unknown person on the other side of a razor wire fence encapsulated the exhaustion, the fear and the feeling that something too was coming to this man and the last great thing he could do was to say goodbye to his child in the hope that life would be better for them, somewhere.
My heart beat with the acknowledgement of this oh so human action.
To me this photo signified a return to everything I believe that is great about the World Press Photo awards. Something that one could argue has been lost in the recent years of the competition in the controversy about the misrepresentation of the tenets of photojournalism.
For this global and renown award, which is the photojournalists equivalent of the Oscars, does not simply mirror the world that we know as reported in the news. WPP has become an arbiter of taste, a global exhibition that is seen by hundreds and thousands and sends a definite visual message to those that would observe the work of the photojournalist and the people that they truly photograph for.
And that is the people whose story photojournalists are honour bound to tell. Whatever means that takes, whatever visual form it is executed in, ultimately the onus should be about actually telling the story. If a judgement was to be made about what the year 2015 should reflect, then Warren Richardson’s photograph nailed it in no uncertain terms.
The Year of the Refugee.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photojournalist of some repute, and a juror on the WPP awards of which I speak, has criticised the lack of diversity within the awards. While I would agree that WPP has always had a bit of the #OscarsSoWhite about it, her argument that “the Third Prize was awarded to another series of photographs that are as deserving of the award.” after the withdrawal of a touching essay on the Paris bombings by Ochoa de Olza’s, seems pretty anodyne. Especially since the point that Ms Taylor-Lind seems to be making is that the WPP did not recognise this photographer’s more conceptual way of telling a photo story. That the essay was not an original approach, repurposing found photographs in documentary photography has been around for a while, doesn’t strengthen her case for a lack of diversity in photographic storytelling.
Of course, in photojournalism, we must recognise that the World Press Photo Awards are exactly like the Oscars. There are as many photojournalists now, as there are aspiring actors and film-makers, but because ultimately we are living in a televisual world and the era of the “selfie”, where even in the most remote places on the earth we all speak the language of photography, we must take heed of what wins and loses in the hallowed halls of such awards.
While relevant photojournalistic forms are one thing, I think it most important that there is a recognition of the visual language of our current psychosocial focus in photojournalism. These forms have not arrived out of nowhere. They are based on the history of photography since it was invented.
And one of the great things about photojournalism is that it recognises people. And humanity. And telling the story of humanity does not always have to prostrate itself at the foot of innovation and diversity. Afterall, the story of humanity belongs to us all.
Today’s image is that of Abraham Ajok, a Sudanese Refugee to Australia who was once one of the estimated 20,000 “Lost Boys” who walked from their war-torn country and back a again. A journey of thousands of kilometres. The photo shows the only item he had with him when he arrived unaccompanied in Sydney as a seventeen year old boy. It was a soccer ball made of socks that he had taken with him on his journey.
This photo was also a finalist in a photography award. The Olive Cotton Award. It didn’t win and there was no great debate about whether it was innovative or diverse. But it is a nice photo of Abraham who is a big tall and upstanding fellow that I would never like to see on his knees, ever.