Every picture tells a story, but the story is as much what the viewer imagines as it is what the image reveals.
Such was my impression after looking at the images in the World Press Photo exhibition now on at the Bonsecours Market in Old Montreal.
One picture in particular captures the dialectic between between photographer and viewer. It’s called, starkly, “Final Embrace,” and it depicts a man and woman in each other’s arms, their bodies uncovered after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh. More than a thousand people died and more than 2,000 were injured in what is described as the worst industrial accident ever.
The woman’s face is obscured while the man’s seems in almost peaceful repose. Part of the caption reads, “The relationship between the two people is unknown.” And therein lies the story – enigmatic, incomplete, compelling as a Shakespearean tragedy – and left to the viewer to finish.
Photojournalism is the most hard-nosed of creative endeavours. Its practitioners bear witness to disasters, wars and so much of what is rotten in human behaviour. They are risk-takers and adrenaline junkies of the first order, as revealed in a series of photos from the Syrian civil war. In one, a tank shell explodes into a wall near two insurgents, showering them (and the photographer) with dust and debris. The image is all kinetic energy as pieces of wall, coming at the camera, are caught in freeze frame.
“The great talent of the best news photographers is their ability to make the camera more than an indifferent eye, to make it an instrument that reveals, often with tenderness, the complexity of the world and who we are.”
But the great talent of the best news photographers is their ability to make the camera more than an indifferent eye, to make it an instrument that reveals, often with tenderness, the complexity of the world and who we are.
And so another favourite photo, from a feature about daily life in the West Bank, shows a man in a car with a sheep in the front seat beside him. He’s taking the sheep home for Eid, and nonchalantly smoking a cigarette as he waits for a border crossing to open. The image is at once poignant and funny – as life itself often is.
As you expect, many of the photos are grim, but there are lighter touches as well. In contrast to the bestiality in some of the photos, a feature on bonobos done for National Geographic makes our primate near-cousins seem more well-adjusted than humans.
In sum, this is a fabulous exhibition, one that will make you think and feel. Not to be missed.
Credits for photos mentioned above:
Occupied Pleasures: Tanya Habjouqa (Jordan)
The ninth edition of World Press Photo is at the Bonsecours Market (325, rue de la Commune Est), until September 28. For times and ticket prices, visit wppmtl.com.
Bryan Demchinsky is an author, journalist and former editor of The Gazette