A press photo that transgresses boundaries

By Marta Zarzycka and Stephen Amico

Mads Nissen’s winning entry to the 2014 World Press Photo competition – a poetic and evocative portrait of an intimate moment shared by a male, Russian couple – is both notable and laudable insofar as the image is one that cannot be easily classified via recourse to the most recognizable tropes of Western photojournalistic tradition (e.g. a mourning woman, a wounded soldier, a crying child) – dramatic representations which are easily accessible, undemanding in their familiarity, and consequently well-suited to mass-mediated collective memory. Moreover, the photograph transgresses the very categories imposed by the WPP contest itself – categories ranging from Spot News, General News, and Contemporary Issues, to Daily Life and Portraits – along which prizes are awarded. This image seems to slip away from these prize-oriented categorizations. It is quieter, more subdued, imbued with intimacy and subtlety, in the best style of slow photojournalism; rather than engaging us in a visual spectacle, the image slows us down, it momentarily pauses (us).

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Winner of the World Press Photo 2014 – by Mads Nissen.

Indeed, in contrast to many photographs which capture the viewer via an almost palpable kineticism, Nissen’s draws the viewer in by way of a seemingly motionless sensuous plenitude. The viewer is struck by the image’s painterly quality, and the very materiality of the scene is immediately and viscerally engaging: the softness of represented textures – velvet curtains, human skin – foregrounds the sense of touch, not only vision. This very tactility is arguably rendered via the stunning use of chiaroscuro effect, an adroit juxtaposition of rich, creamy luminescence and thick, sepia depths through which the mass, depth, and weight of bodies and objects seems to exceed the limitations of the material two-dimensionality of the artifact.

This juxtaposition of light and dark, of course, operates not only on visual and aesthetic levels, however, but also those symbolic, discursive, and ideological; as with (arguably) all captivating images, Nissen’s demands our engagement beyond visual perception alone, and in viewing the photograph we must also take into account the jury’s having chosen as the winning image one which represents visually (and symbolically) contemporary sociopolitical events. In this regard, the centrality of this pictorial invocation of light and dark must be understood as intimately bound up with the ways in which visibility/invisibility functions as a social construction. Although the photograph in many ways foregrounds intimacy and hiddenness (the shadows, the drawn, heavy drapes, the closeness of the bodies), there is a tension between this depicted cloistered space, and the public context in which it is apprehended; not only, on the most obvious level, does this photograph of the private exist as an object for public dissemination and consumption, but the very profundity it conveys requires its comprehension within a wider sociopolitical discourse. That is, this private, intimate, physical moment shared by two apparently nude men is profound exactly because the viewer understands its prohibition from a public sphere, an implication/inference by photographer/viewer which accrues from knowledge of Russia’s passage of national legislation prohibiting “gay propaganda.” Moreover, it is crucial that these tensions remind us that the image’s genesis and promulgation are inextricably linked to a Western sphere of production, consumption, and spectatorship; Nissen’s photograph is situated within ontological and epistemological structures wherein “visibility” and “recognition” are often rendered as the preconditions for full subjecthood and agency, and the mutually constitutive relationships among (and indeed definitions of) (sexual) identity, civil society, and human rights are taken as self-evident. How might the image be “viewed” through Russian “eyes” – and why is it important to understand that all acts of “seeing” are culturally and historically contingent?

Marta Zarzycka is Assistant Professor in the Gender Studies Department at the Institute of Media and Culture, Utrecht University. She teaches and publishes in the field of photography studies and feminist theory. She is a co-editor of Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics (I.B. Tauris, 2012). Her current book-length project, entitled Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers, is forthcoming from Routledge and is supported by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Stephen Amico is Assistant Professor in both the Media Studies and Music Departments at the University of Amsterdam. Originally from New York City, he has previously been a faculty member and communications fellow within the City University of New York (CUNY) system, and was also a Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, in the departments of Music and Slavic Languages and Literatures.

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