Why so much violence in press photos?

Every year World Press Photo announces the best media photography during the year, based on thousands of submitted photos from all around the world.

Indeed these photos can be deeply moving and say a lot about our world; they are technically superb and often examples of the magic of being there at the right place at the right moment.

Undoubtedly, the photographer has, in many cases, taken personal safety risks.

I have often said that we should be grateful to photographers and other media people who are willing to risk their lives to bring us impressions from dangerous places. They hold up world history in front of our eyes and compel us to think of what it is we humans do – are able to do – to each other and to Nature.

All fine and good, indeed impressive. Visit the homepage of World Press Photo and you’ll be convinced that this is a high-quality, very elaborate and experienced endeavour, begun in 1955.

When you are there and browse the 2015 images that won you will also see that an overwhelming percentage are variations on one theme – negative, violence, suffering, victims, destruction, inequality, catastrophe.

Yes, there are exceptions and a smiling human here and there. And, yes, there is the truly interesting “different” Japanese photojournalist, Katsuma Obara. His focus isalso violence, drama and suffering; he started out in Fukushima and has now done Chernobyl.

But in contrast to the rest Obara’s pictures are not typical for the media but more in the direction of art and surrealism, very subtle and toned-down Japanese aesthetic style you may say. Certainly not violence “pornography” as some others could be described.

I find them intriguing and slightly enigmatic, even beautiful.

Is there some answer – or answers – the question in the headline?

I just bring these few but I think relevant ones to the discussion table:

1. The media in general – everywhere and all kinds – wallow in violence. The good story is the bad, destructive event – accidents, wars, catastrophes – on the basis of which a human-individual story of suffering can be told.

2. Most photographers – no less photojournalists of course – orient their work to what can be sold to the media, financing their travels to faraway places, their equipment and life. Nothing wrong with that and, for sure, it does not exclude that they are also driven by passion, telling their story and serving the education of us all.

3. There is a – strange and I think deeply wrong – assumption behind much of it: If we just see enough of the violence and, say, the wars, we will turn against it and learn to avoid it. But think of all the Hiroshima/Nagasaki films shown over 60 years.

I have seen no proof that these terrifying images have had an impact on humanity’s thinking in the direction of nuclear disarmament or abolition. More likely we are witnessing a kind of psychic numbing – the more we see, the less emotional reaction.

And no matter how many wars we have fought in Europe and Europe has fought abroad, say in the Middle East and Africa, there is no serious problems for them in getting new ones started – leading to one catastrophe after the other.

Sometimes, it seems, it looks like at least some human being with power are unable to learn from history, even contemporary history – and have become autistic or psychically numbed. I mean, they too watch television and get report from war zones…

4. World Press Photo has outlined nine categories but none which are explicitly encouraging positive images, spreading hope – there is no categories for, say, peace-building, reconciliation, true human development, betterment of social circumstances, love or anything similar.

Such themes/foci are also, beyond dispute, part of human life on our earth.

5. It is so much more easy – ceteris paribus – to take photos of violence and suffering. We have always had war reportage and war documentaries, war museums and monuments in memory of all the wars and human folly. When I say war photography, you immediately see some for your inner eye.

If, however, I say peace photography you are more likely to either think: Yeah, that must be something like two people holding hand while watching the sun set (nice colours and awfully boring of course…) – or ask: Yeah, I wonder what that would look like!

As a matter of fact I wrote to World Press Photo’s board about ten years ago and pointed out that perhaps one or two specific categories in that constructive, positive and hope-inducing direction would both enrich the WPP and be a good challenge to photographers and quite likely yield some interesting results – both in terms of photos and of debate.

As I didn’t get an answer, I wrote again – and still to this day have never heard from them.

All this tells volumes in my view of the malaise of the world: If we cannot imagine or photograph the good things that also happen, hope and faith in humanity will reman in the shadow of the brutality and destruction. Violence will dominate and increasingly look like the natural or normal state of affairs.

And, worse, what we cannot even imagine we are not likely to struggle for – as the queen of academic peace research and my dear friend, Elise Bouldingused to teach everyone who cared to listen to her wisdom until she died in 2010.

To be honest I do not myself know what peace – and otherwise positive, constructive – photography is. I think of it when I create my works but do not pretend to know.

It’s very exciting to grapple with something, the result of which is unknown or very vague. But I know that images of violence don’t have my interest, neither as peace researcher nor photographer. That is, unless they are different in the sense Katsuma Obara’s are.

One day – who knows? – there will be a world photo contest with the same acronym but based on a more visionary, future-oriented idea: World Peace Photography?

Anyone interested in starting to move in such a direction?




















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