Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
February 13, 2015

LGBT Love and Anxiety: The Ambiguity and Politics of the World Press Photo of the Year

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You can talk about a photo in terms of what you believe it generally reflects or you can be more rigorous and address its content and nuances in a more specific way. In this case – and to the credit of the World Press Photo of the Year – a more careful reading of the picture reveals Mad Nissen’s photograph, “Jon and Alex,” as that much more powerful a choice.

If you’re going to send a message about LGBT civil rights and, in tandem, Russian repression, the photo — in its ambiguity — cleverly dials up a lot of allusions. Unavoidably, the photo, set to be lauded, displayed and studied the world over, is about gay love as well as gay sex. Before leaving it there, however, Jon’s look of vigilance, even hyper-vigilance, combined with Alex flat on his back, speaks almost as much (in spite of the nakedness) to anguish or agony. Married to a caption (below) that juxtaposes a moment of intimacy in its first sentence with references in its second to harassment and violent attacks, politics and political violence enters the room as we’re forced to honor the possibility the photo might be as much about trauma or injury as rapture or repose.

In her video and published comments about the photo, Michele McNally, referring to Jon and Alex, states that the mood on their faces is one of “compassion and love. (It’s) very, very tender…” Perhaps the noirish quality serves as a buffer but this photo is at least as tense as it is tender. Certainly, the hands are joined in a tender way, but there is a disjunction between the two which we, in no way, can account for. If there is an overriding dramatic element in the photo, however, I’d say it’s Jon’s gaze. If gay love’s the foil, it wouldn’t be worth a second look if Jon’s expression was either more relaxed or more benign. (To appreciate its intensity, cover Alex with your hand and imagine Jon gazing that way but sitting alone staring out the window). The mystery and intensity of that gaze invests the photo with a heightened sense of concern, questioning, even a little paranoia. In such an important photo — one McNally hopes might even achieve an iconic status, it’s not a detail (like the girl buttoning her blouse in the famous My Lai photo) we want to ignore. And then, when we see the shadow of Jon’s head on the wall, that second occurrence only amplifies the importance, ambiguity and extenuating circumstance of his frame of mind.

If World Press is going to lead us, not just into the politics, but into the realm of gay sex and gay relationships — juxtaposed against the repression and ignorance through the parted curtain — the photo makes other demands, too. Looking to make an impact statement (context, hopefully, being as vital to this contest as pixel integrity), what the jury has perhaps inadvertently compelled is also a teaching moment. Laying it down (literally), what should and do the rest of us know about gay sex and intimacy? Or, given that Jon looks stereotypically female, and Alex stereotypically male, what does the public know and what should it know about gender roles and gender identity beyond the hetero world?

If this is playing like a feel good choice, it’s not a feel good picture.  It addresses issues that are not simple or easy to discuss, there being no monopoly on ignorance. To the extent it’s fierce and politically provocative, that’s getting a little lost in the heart focus too.  Ultimately (with WPP itself promising a larger, consistent and more outspoken role), it’s a mistake to frame this suggestive, Hitchcock-ian and, above all, deftly ambiguous photo with unambiguous talk of tenderness and love when, instead, this is World Press channeling Pussy Riot.

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As a follow up note, check out the highlight clips from our “Pictures of the Year” panel at Photoville last September. They include a segment with BagNews publisher, Michael Shaw, BagNews editor-at-large, Meg Handler, photographers Mario Tama and Todd Heisler, and photo editor James Wellford about Glenna Gordon’s World Press winning image (General News) of personal items acquired from the homes of abducted Nigerian girls.

We’re extraordinarily pleased to see Sergey Ponomarev win a World Press award, also in General News. Our analysis and defense of Sergey’s image, and the other news photos taken on the scene  — David Frum Accuses NYT and Reuters of Staging Gaza Hospital Photos (GRAPHIC) — was likely the biggest photo controversy in the mainstream press in 2014.

Finally, we’ve asked a number of visual scholars to discuss the World Press winning photos. Look for those posts starting Monday.

(photo: Mads Nissen/Berlingske/Scanpix. extended World Press caption: 18 May 2014. St. Petersburg, Russia. Jon, 21, and Alex, 25, a gay couple, during an intimate moment. Life for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people is becoming increasingly difficult in Russia. Sexual minorities face legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate-crime attacks from conservative religious and nationalistic groups.)

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