From General News and Contemporary Issues to Nature and Environment, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition presents a collection of the most prestigious journalistic photography that captures the current affairs and zeitgeist of the year. Hosted at Smith & Caughey’s in the CBD, with proceeds donated to rotary club of Auckland charities, one’s experience of the 2019 exhibition is, as with any, highly dictated by the order in which it’s taken.
While the sixth floor windows of the gallery entry would be advantageous in daylight, evening patrons are best to begin here, before adjusting to the harsher fluorescent lights in the main gallery. It’s also comparatively lighter subject matter, Sports and Portraits, which, while equally visceral, are too easily dismissed after more confronting imagery.
General News feels anything but, with a series of haunting shadows signalling the trauma in John Wessels (South Africa) and Lorenzo Tugnolis (Italy) third and first prize stories on the destabilising effects of health in South Africa and Yemen respectively. And with nothing more than framing, Brendan Smialowski (United States) skews Donald Trump and his withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran during Emmanuel Macron’s three-day visit to the United States.
Spot News pushes further with even harsher lighter and heavier compositions, evoking the chaos of war in Afghanistan (Andrew Quilty) and the Syrian conflict (Mohammed Badra), and the juxtaposition between life and death in Long-Term Projects from Venezuela. This extreme content is brought closer to the Western political world, reiterated by Enayat Asadi (Iran), Pedro Pardo (Mexico), and John Moore (United States), in framing the solidarity and tension of their subjects’ bodies at various stages of Central American migration.
And then, a significant shift. People, and even stunning archival architectural projections by Thomas P. Peschak (Germany/South Africa) are no longer the focus. As we, humanity, leave the Environment, definition becomes more prominent, and Nature, in all its colour, reminds us of the beauty that still exists, from pumas in the Canadian Yukon by Ingo Arndt (Germany) and Caribbean flamingos by Jasper Doest (Netherlands), to winged comb jelly by Angel Fitor (Spain) and falcons by Brent Stirton (South Africa).
Beginning in 1955 with a group of Dutch photographers, the intent of the exhibition was to expose their work to global audiences. Touring more than 45 countries and 100 cities, development programs run by the foundation aim to encourage diverse accounts of the world, but what do the exhibitions, competitions, and programs say about us when the majority of those perspectives point to the same inevitable truth? If they are unfiltered snapshots of the world today, they are, unfortunately, predominantly pessimistic. However, if we are to consider art, as Alain de Botton suggests in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, as “anything which pushes our thoughts in important yet neglected directions”, then the 2019 World Press Photo Exhibition, is the definition of the word, and an experience which, if we want to survive, should not be ignored.