Photography: Photo finesse

Pictures in ‘World Press Photo,' ‘Local Testimony’ exhibitions represent very best in international, local photojournalism.

Nature and Environment 521 (photo credit: Miriam Tsachi)
Nature and Environment 521
(photo credit: Miriam Tsachi)
Robert Capa was a giant in the field of photojournalism, whose combat photos documented five wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, World War II, Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and the war that ended French colonialism in Indochina. His Spanish Civil War photograph of a soldier falling in battle – taken from a vantage point just a few feet away – has become an iconic war photo, among the most famous in the history of the genre.
Describing the art of photojournalism, Capa once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Two current exhibitions running side by side at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv display pictures by international and local photographers who quite obviously got “close enough” to the people, places and events they were photographing – close enough physically, and often emotionally as well.
The annual “World Press Photo” exhibition comes to Israel again as part of its 45-nation tour, displaying prize-winning news and documentary photographs selected by an all-star international jury. And the accompanying “Local Testimony” exhibition features the best documentary and press photos from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, chosen by an independent jury of professional photographers, media professionals and scholars from thousands of entries submitted for competition. The jury panels for both exhibitions change every year. Both exhibitions focus the camera’s unblinking lens on the world as it is – thrilling and mundane, inspiring and appalling, joyful and mournful, soothingly peaceful and unspeakably violent.
The history of photojournalism is almost as old as photography itself. It began in 1847, when an unknown pioneer photographer took Daguerreotype images of US soldiers in Satilo, Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. The first known photojournalist was Carol Szathmari, a Romanian artist, lithographer and photographer, who took pictures to doculater, photojournalism came of age with an extensive array of pictures of the American Civil War, taken by “Northern photographers” Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and George Barnard, and by “Southern photographers” George Cook and Confederate Lieutenant Robert M. Smith. Smith, who was captured and imprisoned in Ohio, secretly made an improvised camera and took clandestine photographs of fellow captive Southern soldiers.
Because the technology to print photographs did not yet exist, none of the pictures of these early photojournalists were able to find their way into the newspapers or magazines of the period. Publications like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper employed artists to make engravings of the photographs and would then print the engravings, not the photographs, along with the written text. It was not until March 4, 1880, that the New York Daily Graphic published the first half-tone reproduction of an actual photograph. By the late 1890s, the printing of half-tone photographs had become common and widespread. The transmission of photographs by wire was introduced in 1921, and the appearance four years later of the Leica 35 mm. camera – along with flashbulbs in 1927 – ushered in a golden age of photojournalism that continues to this day.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS assembled in the “World Press Photo” and “Local Testimony” exhibitions represent the very best in international and local photojournalism.
Begun in 1955, World Press Photo is a highly prestigious annual contest that attracts more than 5,000 participants from around 125 countries, who together submit upwards of 100,000 photos. Photos are submitted to compete in one of several categories, such as general news, spot news, people in the news, contemporary issues, daily life, portraits, nature, arts and entertainment, and sports.
This year’s exhibition features 161 winning pictures – by 57 photographers from 25 countries – chosen from a total of 101,254 photos. The World Press Photo of the Year depicts a woman cradling her 18- year-old son who was tear-gassed by riot police during a demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen, against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The chilling moment when the woman later found her son lying in a gritty makeshift field hospital was captured by Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda and published on October 15, 2011, in The New York Times.
Now in its ninth year, “Local Testimony” is showing 190 prize-winning photographs from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, selected from more than 6,500 photos submitted to compete in categories roughly similar to those in the World Press Photo contest. Six video works will also be shown. The winning Photo of the Year and Photo Series of the Year will be named and honored during the exhibition.
Not only does the “Local Testimony” jury of judges change every year, but each year there is also a different guest curator. This year’s curator, Moran Shoub, is presenting an additional thematic exhibit called “Castoffs,” with photographs that deal artistically with the issue of abandonment. The pictures in this series depict themes such as homeless people, discarded furniture and household objects, and places previously used by people and now deserted.
The two shows, running jointly at the Eretz Israel Museum, are directed by Dana Wohlfeiler-Lalkin, who first brought the “World Press Photo” exhibition to Israel in 2002 and established “Local Testimony” as an accompanying exhibition in 2003.
“What’s beautiful about these two exhibitions are the many different issues the photographs are dealing with. It’s not only about the difficulties and problems in the world, but also a glimpse of hope and an attempt to find some beauty in the world,” she says.
“There is the beauty of nature, and the fascination and appeal of the arts, and the human factor that we see in the portraits presented in both exhibitions.”
What makes a picture a winning photograph? Of the tens of thousands of photos they see, how do jury members decide which to honor and award? Wohlfeiler-Lalkin explains, “The fact that a certain image brings up a contemporary issue is first of all very important. But I think that most of the jurors also look for a symbolic factor, something that could be classical, something that can be burned in the hearts and minds of the viewers. The World Press Photo Picture of the Year, of the mother cradling her infant son, references Michelangelo’s Pietà. But even if someone isn’t familiar with this work of art, most of us at least have the image in the back of our mind.
And a mother cradling her son in this way is definitely something that all of us can relate to.”
Asked if even the most compelling, gut-wrenching photograph has the power to effect social or cultural change, Wohlfeiler-Lalkin replies, “I don’t think that a photograph can really change people, but I think it can make people more tolerant and more aware. It can make them feel, if only for a moment, a little more social. It can take them a little more outside of their bubble. From time to time, you can really see people staring at an image and really feeling something. I think they go away from the exhibition a bit more aware.”
The “World Press Photo” and “Local Testimony” are running concurrently until January 19 at the Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Haim Levanon Street, Ramat Aviv. Special opening hours for this exhibition: Sunday to Wednesday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m; Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For further information, call (03) 641-5244.