Decayed and motionless, a corpse floats in a liquid, rippling sky. Its only companions are a disposable coffee cup and some piece of unidentifiable, discarded garbage. This is the World Press Photo exhibition: impressive, iconic, and incredibly removed from the idyllic.
The World Press Photo is an annual exhibition of the most iconoclastic images from the preceding year… with some sports, nature photography, and a few topical and less soul-crushing news events like the Olympics or an American presidential campaign thrown in as a buffer between your lunch and the pavement.
The corpse suspended in the pool of leaking oil comes from Sudan. The photographer, Dominic Nahr, captured the image in the aftermath of a battle in the contested town of Heglig. Heglig, which lies in the oil-rich border region between what is now Sudan and South Sudan, had seen some of the area’s worst fighting in recent years as the conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (now the army of the Republic of South Sudan) intensified over disputed oil fields and resources. It was one more battle in a struggle that spanned more than half a century. This soldier is not the first victim, and he is far from the last; faceless and discarded, this is the portrait of an oil struggle.
Alongside conflict zones and war-ravaged, blood-splattered streets, this year’s exhibition also features several sets from photographers that confront you with the brutality perpetrated against women.
A shocking mother-daughter portrait by Ebrahim Noroozi displayed the monstrous results of a vindictive patriarchy. Somayeh Mehri, 29, and daughter Rana Afghanipour, 3, were attacked, silently, as they slept by a husband and father who frequently beat and locked Somayeh away and promised revenge should she carry out her divorce. One night he carried out his threat and poured acid over the two while they were tucked in their beds, considering it just retribution for her attempts at leaving him.
The duo avert their gaze from the camera. Rana smiles, though the smile is only discernible through her left eye. The rest of her face, and that of her mother’s, has been transformed into something horrid. Burnt, deformed, and shrouded in bandages that cover the purulent skin, these two women represent a microcosm of the oppression foisted onto women in many parts of the world. These photos draw you in. They are taken in black and white and the textures of seared, melted flesh form a visual tapestry of struggle and spirit; these living corpses are filled with more life and capacity to endure than any asinine simile. This is the life of two women living in Iran.
All in all, the exhibition leaves you with conflicting emotions. The photos, gory and horrifying, are real moments; unadulterated fractions of seconds, caught on celluloid or digital sensors across the world. They stand there, frozen and presented without frames or pretense, but the artistic and technical precision, the conscious editing and manipulation of reality that is photojournalism, can be overwhelming. How can depictions of the most acrid slices of humanity bear so much painterly beauty? Could it be the only recourse open for journalists: to interpret brutality with bokeh and saturation, to turn it into something disturbingly beautiful? Or is it simpler than that – are we so enamored with war that we find excuses to stage traveling exhibitions? Whatever the reasoning that founded and propagates its success, this exhibition is a portrait of the human condition. This is World Press Photo.
World Press Photo is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., from September 4 to 29 at 350 Saint-Paul Street East, in the Old Port of Montreal. Ticket prices are $12.