World Press Photo ‘16
Few things seem certain in this ever-shifting mire we know as the twenty-first century. Along with the family fun pack of war, famine and wealth disparity is the fact that, when my Russian best friend makes a decree, it must, at risk to life and limb, be respected. And promptly followed.
So when during the week I received a text (with exclamation marks denoting unusual levels of excitement) noting that World Press Photo ’16 was opening at the State Library on Saturday, I knew we’d be there.
Admittedly that I was underwhelmed with this new direction to my afternoon.
I’d planned, after driving up to Sydney on the Friday morning, to spend the (self-awarded long) weekend surprising people with my presence, taking in new shows, drinking in the absurd autumn sunshine that blesses Sydney in May and grumbling at paying an extra four dollars for a hashbrown with my brunch.
Unskilled as I am at subtlety, my under-enthusiasm was rewarded with the threat of a red card in the event of non-compliance. Unsure of whether that would involve kneecapping or some such similar bodily injury, I hastily affirmed my attendance and early Saturday afternoon saw us strolling up the grand marble steps of the NSW State Library.
It’s a good show. In fact, it is a very good show (excepting the animal photography collection which is a bit second-page-of-Google-images) and definitely worth seeing.
It is also free.
(I was also being a bit of a recalcitrant child in my unwillingness to go. Luckily, the mix wonderment, horror and sadness that wells in one as you progress through the rooms is likely to banish any such juvenile impulses.)
The weakest category was definitely the animal photos (do we really need more saturated studies of iguanas?) but the rest was a myriad blur of dispossession and celebration. Photos of displaced people dominate nearly all categories (excepting ‘Daily Life’ which deliberately focuses on gentler joys); a stark reminder of the uncertainty and desperation felt by thousands of people around the world right now.
A beautiful frame of a small child’s face smushed against metal railings; distorted by the twisting plastic of her clear rain poncho. A smouldering scene of historic defiance after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. A stunningly elegant shot of a miner smoking between shifts in a shallow cut mine. An aerial photo following an implosion in an industrial-but-populated area of China.
These are a fraction of the stories that photographers lenses have lovingly captured around the globe. (Yes, each frame, whatever the subject, oozes with the affections of its captor. And yes, entries came from the Amazon, Africa and Antarctica, giving the whole a sense of being almost a curated summary of the year-that-was...which perhaps is the intent.)
Certainly the winning shot – a grainy monochrome still of a man carefully transferring a baby through barbed wire to the hands waiting safely beyond - speaks directly to the refugee crisis that reached boiling point in 2015 and comments on the attitudes of nations everywhere responding now in 2016.
Though there are some brutally blunt images (a series of limbless and lifeless children in the fallout of a bombing comes immediately to mind) the curators have clearly worked to balance the stark with the sublime. Indeed, the series that has most stayed with me, reappearing in my mind’s-eye in flashes of pale soaked brilliance, was a set of shots documenting the daily life of a woman born in the aftermath of Chernobyl and forever cursed to live out its legacy. Using film sourced from the time and region, the artist gives glimpses into a life shrouded in invisibility from the outside world. Light on details, the muted frames are wondrously evocative and wisps of otherworldliness mix with an almost childlike innocence in the sallow depths.
The World Press Photo 16 runs till 19 June 2016 at the NSW State Library in Sydney, and admission is gleefully free for all.