All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players….
— William Shakespeare, As You Like It
You had one eye in the mirror, and you watched yourself so hard.
— Carly Simon, You’re So Vain
If “the selfie” was the dominant theme this year in social media and personal photography (1, 2), I would argue that the theme of “self absorption” (or, “the absorption of self”) applied as much to news photography. Studying the New York Times 2013 “The Year in Pictures” edit, what struck me is how much the photos dealt with a dominant central figure, often dramatically lit, in a setting that felt — no matter how dire, dangerous or squalid — like a theater set or stage.
I have no problem with editorial images that are beautiful when the aesthetics inform more than entertain. With all the adversity in the world, let the beauty seer; let it help us feel, relate, seek more knowledge. The questions we should be asking ourselves about 2013, however, are:
• how much did aesthetics draw us closer to conflict, to complexity, to diversity, to context, to editorial content versus how much did it usurp the available bandwidth with drama and the aura of significance?
• how many of the admittedly striking images this year were more memorable in and for themselves rather than for a subject or event?
• To what extent were the top pictures this year portals into the story as opposed to discrete objects and consumables themselves?
To the extent imagery seeks to impress more than express and stimulate more than inform, that can be understood as self-absorption.
I mentioned that many of the photos, like this one, from Port Said, Egypt, felt like theatrical spaces highlighting a central dramatic figure. A variation on the image with the “central protagonist” was the gorgeous “ensemble scene,” offering a cast of figures presented in an almost operatic arrangement more evocative of choreography.
It’s going to be very interesting to see what the World Press and Picture of the Year juries do in February in the wake of this NYT Picture of the Year edit. (That’s especially true after articles about Molhem Barakat, the young Reuters freelancer recently killed in Aleppo established the financial premium placed on any image that appears in a NYT “Picture of the Day” slideshow). Will these organizations find a way to recognize and honor vivid imagery that details and elucidates current events or will they reinforce this “self absorption” by further canonizing it? Who knows. But after a year of self-absorption, perhaps we’ll finally turn a corner.
(photo 1: Marcus Bleasdale/VII caption: BOSSANGOA, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC 11/02/2013 People displaced by the brutal sectarian violence in the Central African Republic found shelter in an unused factory on the grounds of a Christian mission. .photo 2: Josh Haner/The New York Times caption: BOSTON 05/08/2013 Jeff Bauman, 27, rested during occupational therapy, almost a month after he lost his lower legs in the Boston Marathon bombings. . photo 3: Susana Vera/Reuters caption: MADRID 05/12/2013 Serena Williams served to her opponent, Maria Sharapova, in the women’s singles final at the Madrid Open. Williams won and retained the world No. 1 ranking. photo 4: Daniel Etter/Redux caption: ISTANBUL 06/01/2013 Demonstrators against the Turkish government’s plans to develop Gezi Park clashed with the police near the prime minister’s office. photo 5: Karsten Moran for The New York Times. caption: MANHATTAN 07/15/2013 Having braved the long lines, visitors experienced Random International’s “Rain Room” at the Museum of Modern Art. photo 6: European Pressphoto Agency. caption: PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA 08/19/2013 The double-amputee track star Oscar Pistorius was indicted in South Africa in the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.photo 7: Narciso Contreras/Associated Press caption: IDLIB PROVINCE, SYRIA 09/17/2013 A Syrian rebel fighter rested in a cave. Russia claimed that it had new information tying rebel forces to nerve gas attacks on the capital.. photo 8: Barton Silverman/The New York Times caption: THE BRONX 09/26/2013 Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees closer who had pitched on five of their World Series-winning teams, played his last game at Yankee Stadium. photo 9: Damon Winter/The New York Times caption: MANHATTAN 11/05/2013 Bill de Blasio celebrated backstage with family and friends at the Park Slope Armory after a landslide victory in New York’s mayoral election. photo 10: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times caption: BROOKLYN 11/06/2013 Justin Timberlake performed at the Barclays Center. photo 11: Olivia Harris/Reuters caption: LONDON 10/20/2013 Malala Yousafzai, 16, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Taliban fighters, signed a copy of her memoir, “I Am Malala,” before an event at the Southbank Center..photo 12: Andrea Bruce for The New York Times caption: DAMASCUS, SYRIA 03/28/2013 Syrian soldiers and investigators surveyed the area where a mortar shell exploded in a cafe at Damascus University.. photo 13: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times caption: PAKTIA PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN 04/15/2013 The Third Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Rakkasans, climbed down from the mountains. photo 14: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times caption: SAMAR ISLAND, THE PHILIPPINES 11/18/2013 After Typhoon Haiyan, people found refuge at Saint Michael the Archangel Church in Basey. photo 15: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times. caption: KABUL, AFGHANISTAN 04/22/2013 Traders exchanged currency at the money market.. photo 16: Kevin Frayer/Associated Press caption: SAVAR, BANGLADESH 04/24/2013 A Bangladeshi woman, who survived the collapse, was rescued.)