February 18, 2015

World Press, Spot News: Tangled Up in Blue

We’re looking at World Press Photo’s pick for First Prize in the Spot News category. –That’s spot news, by the way, not hot news. When visual politics takes its cues from branding culture, it can be hard to tell the difference.

On the news side of the image we are led to believe from the caption that the girl staring into the camera likely is a “protestor” and that she is being held down by “riot police.” We read that “a young girl was wounded,” which might partially explain why this girl looks so dazed and confused. Look again, though, over to that bloody sleeve on the lower left, and that might be the girl who was wounded. Please tell me a lopped-off hand isn’t also a part of this story. What is the story, actually? What’s really going on here?

One way into the photograph, of course, is to go forensic and try to get a grip on who-what-when-where-why, taking our interpretive cues from the men in blue and their bulky insignia of legitimate state violence. We could put on our police cap and play detective. We could ruminate on the difficult task of keeping order restored. We could see like a state.

But this photograph profoundly disrupts that way of seeing things, and that disruption hints at its selection as one of the top photos of 2014. Read as commentary on public weariness with police aggression, that overwhelmed and utterly exhausted staredown forces a serious internal examination on unchecked tendency to see from the state’s point of view. Not that it’s clear from this image what that point of view could be, since from the looks of their own gesturing, the police don’t know exactly how to proceed anyway. Given the evidence, we might guess that it’s a toss-up between phoning it in or just half-assing it. Thankfully, the photograph helps us see eye-to-eye not with the police, but with the young protestor. Just look at me down here. All of you. I dare you to call this orderly.

That’s the political spin, anyway, and it’s a strong one, turning toward solidarity with the glimmering defiance of youth. But on second glance–or maybe even the first–that ‘glimmer’ is precisely what makes this photograph cut through the noise. Sure, the cops got their girl, and there’s news in that, but for goodness’ sake. Is a riot police scrum supposed to look so glamorous? And now we’re onto the bigger story here, the way this photograph turns street-level politics into something risqué. World Press has selected an image that brazenly summons the visual coding of glamour and high fashion advertising as a way to crystalize the growing conflation of vogue style and political resistance.

— Philip Perdue

(photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP. caption: A young girl was wounded during clashes between riot police and protestors after the funeral of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who died from injuries suffered during anti-government protests. Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at protestors in the capital Ankara, while in Istanbul, crowds shouting anti-government slogans lit a huge fire as they made their way to a cemetery for the boy’s burial).

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Philip Perdue
See other posts by Philip here.

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