The problem with prizes
By Radu Sigheti
As I prepared pictures to submit to a contest I could not stop thinking that all these past years the main photo contests chose their winners from among the pictures depicting wars and conflicts. I think that this year will be the same, due to the many bloody events around the world.
I do not know why those pictures are still chosen, they show horrors. They show the pain of the helpless victims and the joy of the gun-toting bullies. They show, some in a dignified way, some in a gruesome way, humanity at its worst, people killed by other people. They will haunt your memory; they will be published again and again. The photographers took great risks to shoot those images; we praise them for their pictures and courage to be where others do not dare to go. There were amazing photos depicting war and those photographers deserve to be praised for their work. But do their images really belong to a pictures contest? Does anyone think about their impact in the future, about their impact on young photographers? Was Susan Sontag right in her last book, “Regarding the pain of others”?
Throughout those years, many young photographers looked at those pictures and what have they learned? They have learned that to be a great photographer and to make a great picture you must go to a conflict or a war zone, because you get instant recognition. But that’s built on others’ ordeals. Generations of photographers thought this way, even today, in an easily accessible conflict zone, the place is swarming with photographers, sometimes they outnumber the combatants.
What happens in a war zone must be documented, the story must be told, because we are supposed to learn from mistakes, we are supposed to intervene if something happens against humanity. The rest of the world must see what is going on elsewhere.
I have been shooting photographs because of this; in the hope that what I picture today will never happen again. But I see that it happens again and again and again.
At some point after being in Croatia in the 90’s I stopped going to conflict zones, because I felt that it will become part of me. I felt that being horrified at what was going on I might take a gun instead of my camera someday. At another point in my life, I went again to cover conflicts and wars. I do not know why I did it again. I think that at the time I felt that I had learned enough. I could do it without feeling guilty that I was taking pictures of others’ pain, pictures which were published, thus being appreciated as good images, which told the story well. I felt the conflict would not affect me anymore.
But passing through some hot points of our world, I learned that this bloody merry-go-round is unstoppable. And it is still affecting me through all the pictures coming out of the conflicts I see today.
Instead of praising life, you realize how insignificant it is in front of a war, or simply in front of another person who holds a weapon in their hands. You slowly start to despise it. There is nothing you can do to stop this.
I am writing this because I hope that something can be done. We, as photographers, cannot stop a war. We, as photographers, cannot stop taking pictures of events as they happen. But a photo contest could decide what to do with those images of war. They should mention them; show them to the world, but in a different category. Not putting them as the “best”.
This is just a thought which came to me, thinking of the many young, aspiring photographers. Maybe in this way we can turn the attention of the new generations of photographers to capture life and not death in their pictures.