Orientalism in photojournalism
In response on this years’ World Press Photo winning picture by the Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda, many have addressed the reference to Michelangelo’s pieta: a reflection of the dying Christ in the arms of his mother Maria. Of course, the religious symbolism is obvious, as it has been throughout the history of awarded photojournalism. We should not be too surprised of favouring this kind of imagery. It, the aesthetic echo of Biblical archetypes, has always played a significant influence on how we see the world. At least, from a Western perspective.
But here is a notion in regards to another World Press winner. In the image by Aranda (but also this picture by Simona Ghizzoni, 3rd prize winner in the category Contemporary Issues, singles) we can recognize the picturesque style of 19th century Orientalist painting, stressing the mystique and timelessness of the scenery, defining the Orient as a geographical region with strong dramatic and aesthetic qualities; a subliminal place that lacks context and therefore can never be fully understood. Or better, unveiled.
What is at stake is the issue of Orientalism, a specific form of exoticism related to the Western gaze on the (Middle) East. In line with Edward Said (1979) it has been widely acknowledged that we have a tendency to mystify what is ‘Other’, and although it has been critically revalued over the past few decades it can been noted that the phenomena is far from being solved.
Although it is no longer the case that these kind of images from the ‘Middle East’ of the ‘Arab World’ – both categorizations, by the way, that Said defined as syntactic forms of Orientalism, as they frame the issues of the people living there from an outsiders perspective – are exclusively produced by Western photographers, and many more ‘mundane’ pictures have been taken during the revolts throughout the region in the past year, it is still these kind of images that define the standard quality of international photojournalism. In regard to the pain of others, as so famously addressed by Susan Sontag, let at least remind ourselves that this particular form of beautification arrives from a longstanding and deep cultural bias.