Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award

Mai Ghoussoub
18 February 2010

World Press Photo of the Year 2006
©Spencer Platt, USA, Getty Images | Reprinted by kind permission, World Press Photo
Young Lebanese drive through devastated neighborhood of South Beirut, 15 August


I am certain that Spencer Platt's picture which won the World Press Photo prize for 2006 looked disturbing and even repellent to most viewers at first glance. I admit that it bothered me when I first saw it on my screen. But I also admit that I kept on looking at it. What was it that intrigued me in this picture despite my unexplained revulsion? Why did I feel that I had to write about what I saw in the picture?

It started with the reactions of others.

I received the photo by email from a young Lebanese woman who commented: a prize for an American photo of Lebanon! I guess it meant that there was something wrong, even some plot, behind the photo and the prize.

My colleague, who heard me say "good Lord" to my computer, came closer, had a quick look and said without a second's hesitation: this reminds me of Rebel Without a Cause. You do remember this cult movie, starring the young and beautiful James Dean? The red convertible car must have inspired his remark, along with the glamorous youth taking a ride inside it.

I said to myself, there is something bizarre in my colleague's remark, for it is not enough to see a fancy car and a few pretty faces to recall James Dean and Hollywood's cults. But after a pause, I realised that his reaction was not shallow: for, think cars, beautiful young people and ... think also of death, and you have a good reason to remember James Dean and his rebellion.

That same afternoon, I went to a housewarming party and I overheard two young Lebanese arguing about the same photo. Both were in their 20s and very "cosmopolitan". One said: I think this is a great photograph, it shows us as we are, not people associated only with war and destruction. The second one was appalled and said: this is the "new orientalism" - instead of the women depicted in Delacroix's classic orientalist paintings, today we have these modern, model-type Lebanese women against a background of war and poverty.

Mai Ghoussoub is an artist, writer and publisher. She was born and brought up in Beirut, and has lived in London since 1979. She has written numerous articles on culture, aesthetics and middle-eastern issues for international journals. She is the author of Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within (Saqi, 2001), co-editor (with Emma Sinclair-Webb) of Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (Saqi, 2006), and a contributor to Anna Wilson, ed., Lebanon, Lebanon (Saqi, 2006)

Also by Mai Ghoussoub in openDemocracy:

"Abu Ghraib: I do not know where to look for hope" (10 May 2004)

"Who is serious?"
(9 June 2004)

"Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Inside the image and ourselves

The photo won the award on 9 February 2007 because, according to the jury, it shows Lebanon's contradictions. World Press Photo jury chair Michele McNally describes the winning image: "It's a picture you can keep looking at. It has the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos. This photograph makes you look beyond the obvious."

This is fair enough. The photo does show the contradictions of a country where destruction and the love of fun are unbearably juxtaposed, or mixed together to the point of exhaustion. The background is brown and grey, as it is in reality. Like a devastating tragedy of rubble mixed with the colours of lost interiors. The car is sparkling red, and the white T-shirt of the blonde woman in the car or the handkerchief covering the nose of the woman in the sleeveless black dress are whiter then the shirt of a passer-by going about his daily routine; the passer-by too, as well as the woman wearing a headscarf, are living in this destroyed neighbourhood. The driver of the convertible car looks like a pop singer or a character from a recent Star Academy TV show. If the photographer had wanted to invent such contradictions, he would not have done better.

Still, if I had been a member of the jury, this is not the justification I would have given for the well-deserved prize. I believe that the photo is stunning in the metaphor it creates about war photography. It tells us about the voyeurism of the photographer, of the act of taking photos in tragic situations: if there is a contradiction, it is in the encounter between art, beauty and tragedy. Covering a disaster in order to create a striking image is what Robert Capa did best, he became an icon for it and we, the viewers are becoming addicted to this art form.

Here is an image, a mirror of the self, an inverted gaze shot impulsively or in "cold blood" by the photographer/artist. The act of taking a picture by the photographer Spencer Platt is mirrored and seen through the woman whose face is strained and body tilted while taking a picture of the same devastation from the seat of the red car. Did the photographer question his own behaviour by showing the voyeurism of another person, a non-professional? Is he saying that the voyeur's need to witness human misery and affliction, and to let others see it through their eyes, is in all of us?

Maybe, the obvious reference to voyeurism is what triggered my first reaction, my rejection of a testimony that was offered to me before I had the time to really look at it. Somehow, somewhere, the images of Helmut Newton came to my mind - despite the fact that there is nothing erotic or pornographic in Platt's picture. Now I can see where I went wrong and got confused, how I needed to focus better to seize the allusion to voyeurism and the art of the camera that Newton shares with war photographers as they create images for the press.

Looking closely, the photo has nothing lurid in it: it is when art has to face human suffering and does not isolate tragedy from the ironies of survival that the absurdity of being hits us in the face.

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