Press photography exhibition: capturing an instant in time

The combination of a great photo and explanatory text is powerful. The shock of the image stays in your mind in a way that even the most descriptive story never does.

World Press Photo 11, the 54th annual World Press Photo exhibition of photojournalism is showing at Brisbane Powerhouse. It has been publicised with a startling image. The 2010 world press photo of the year, by South African Jodi Bieber, is the portrait of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan girl who had her nose sliced off by the Taliban as punishment for escaping her violent in-laws.

The images from the exhibition are displayed to be viewed as you wander around – in the foyer, up the stairs and into rooms. This set-up lends itself to a very agreeable atmosphere. Like you are casually walking around someone’s house, having a look at the pictures on their walls.

The best photos, besides being technically excellent, seem to capture an instant in time never seen before, never to be seen again. Adam Pretty’s photo, of a boy who has plunged headfirst over a steeplechase barrier while competing in the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore, is like that.

Adam Pretty of Getty Images is one of three Australian photographers represented in the exhibition. He won 1st prize Sports Stories. The composition of elements in this photo have come together perfectly and it has a heightened illustration-like effect. Adam Pretty has gone from sports photography to advertising and much of his photography resembles fantasy paintings.

How often do photographers pause an instant in time to capture a more striking image? To what extent are images digitally manipulated?

In his speech at the awards ceremony in 2008, chairman of the Board World Press Photo Pieter Broertjes spoke about the need to maintain the integrity of the profession when the ability to add to or subtract from the original image is at the photographers’ fingertips.

One or two photos among these winners did look a bit set-up. As if the photographer had got the subject to hold the action for a couple of extra seconds. Something looked too planned, too self-conscious. But maybe it was just expertise and sophisticated technique.

Some photos need the text to complete them. Could the photo of Julian Assange stand alone? It’s a good photo – a picture of a worried man successfully maintaining equilibrium – but would it have been selected if Julian Assange had been an unknown?

The 3rd Prize General News winning photos by Fernando Brito would arouse only a little curiosity if viewed without the accompanying text. With the text, they are indelible. Not graphic in any way, the photos of Mexican drugs killings – bodies obscured and faces hidden – leave an indelible impression if you read the text. The unsensational almost casual images, of bodies in grass, under trees or by roadsides tells a sad and sorry tale of desperation and the low currency of human life when fortune comes begging.

But the one that stood out for me was the 2nd Prize Portrait Singles photo of a 16-year-old sailor boy, by Joost van den Broek. An arresting and faintly disturbing image of a boy on the brink of manhood – the last lingering vestiges of innocence seem to hover on the boy’s face and around his mouth, overshadowed by an unwavering and hardening gaze.

At Brisbane Powerhouse until June 26

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