Monday, 21 November 2011


at the Royal Festival Hall.

Is this photograph a work of art?  If it is, should it be on a magazine cover, multiplied a million times and sent round the world?

I'm putting these questions on hold for the moment to report on my last blog - 128. Girl with a Jaguar by Tom Harvey initially has had almost no interest in terms of page views. But Tom Phillips' oil painting of 128. Baroness Susan Greenfield - had a huge response. Is it because Harvey's wood carving is seen as 'mere craft' and has a playfulness about it? And children like it? I included the Jaguar because I delight in the variety I find: pieces worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, while others cost no more that the price of a few cans of spray paint or a packet of biros; the ephemeral and the transitory; outside and inside; predictable or a huge surprise...

Aisha is a portrait of an 18 year old Afghan woman who was sentenced by the Taliban to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing back to her parents after she'd been treated violently by her in laws. She posed for the picture because she wanted to show the effect the return of the Taliban might have on  some women's lives, which have improved over the last few years. Bieber took the portrait because she wanted the viewer first to see a beautiful woman, strong and powerful. It's moments later that you see what has happened to her face.

Bieber received 10,000 Euros for producing the World Press Photo of the Year 2010 out of 108,059 images sent in by 5,601 photographers. The chair of the judges, David Burnett, said 'this could become one of those pictures - and we maybe have just 10 in our lifetime - where if somebody says 'you know, that picture of a girl' know exactly which one they are talking about'.

But it has attracted international controversy. It was used on the cover of Time magazine. Jim Johnson has called this propaganda and the Photo of the Year Award a category error.  In these mock covers he shows how meaning is changed by associated text. The caption and comment could be used to justify American intervention in Afghanistan or, alternatively,  to show how little has changed despite the activities of the Allied forces. It might even be used to justify a retaliatory picture of the death penalty as practiced by some American states.

The Royal Festival Hall has arranged a free event on the ethics of photojournalism this Wednesday, November 29th: A Photo Says 1,000 Words.For an up-to-date article in The Guardian track Sarah Phillips' interview 'Photographer Jodi Bieber's Best Shot.'.


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