12 November 2012
The World Press Photo Exhibition returns to the Southbank Centre, bringing together award-winning photographs from around the world which capture the most powerful, moving and sometimes disturbing images of the year. Richard Downes trips through the horrors to find glimmers of hope
The Southbank Centre looks lonely without Unlimited but hosts the World Press Photo Awards - an event, I am unready for. Split in two halves; heavy and not so heavy I start ignorantly on the heavy half. Initially greeted by scenes of angry protesters - people I can live with, be they New Yorkers damning SUS laws or Arabs springing into action. Then it all goes horribly grisly.
Scenes of murderous mayhem, violence, courage under fire, ensue. I am on a tour of drug addled sex workers, disease, decapitation, distress, and dismay. I begin to look beyond the image into lives of those meting out or receiving butchery. I see suits, hijabs, combat trousers. Do they have to throw those stones, fire those guns? Will it make life any better?
I'm now in idyllic landscapes holding Anders Breijvik's doom. All looks calm. The deed is done. Helicopters hover around islands, a rose on water, signs of damage done. I cry, am depressed, drowning. Photographs bring it back alive, articulate loudly, punch you in the guts with impact. No escape from the pain. Suddenly, I spy Japanese decency. Was that tsunami only seven months ago? Devastation, destruction, amongst the debris, people reclaiming life, re-finding college certificates, a man searches among tons of boxes for family photos. If only they can be found something will be retained. Two young artists paint the words 'Hang In There' on big boards. Hope is here. Bravery shows men walking into nuclear reactors, taking on radiation that has already marked their history.
In America, about to hit Britain, the fifth year of a national housing crisis. Repossessions, poverty, loss, deep sadness, etched into faces walking away from the memories that the Japanese tried so hard to find.
I break with a World Press Photos Photo Award rep. She is completely into these images. She recognises the impact they hold but has a better grip on the follow-ups, joyful survival, the concept that people will live and feel again. I'm told the second half of the exhibition show a better side, and it does, but there is still a heavy-duty within scenes be they arts and entertainment, sports, environment, prayer and healing.
Somehow I see desperation within the wannabe pop stars, bare knuckle fighters. Wrestling always struck me as seedy regardless of Kendo Nagasaki. Would I find solace in defending rhino horn or shark fins? Wouldn't that re-acquaint me with the blood lust soaking this exhibition.
I see abject loneliness within the people resting, small within urban sprawl, disconnected from self, community and planet. Even those finding comfort in religion, from the catholic nun or plasma spraying shaman are in need. The captions tell of places with no electricity, where poverty abounds and drugs still get run. The stoics in the first half are still in these later partitions; stained by loss, demise of loved ones, the harshness of a brutal planet. It’s harder to see, more difficult to relate to the dreadful news here.
I came to this place in crisis, I saw greater crises, hardships I will never endure. Yet I would be remiss to dismiss my own needs, things I am starved of, humiliations I have received too many of, or losses I have endured in the face of these starker, violent stories.
To do so would be to ignore my own community, relegate wishes, desires. I cannot dismiss our difficulties in surviving because of the hurt others suffer. I can only hold out a hand and hope someone will be there to take it and feel glad I can both bleed and feel like this.
I recommend this exhibition but should you choose to go, take a box of tissues.
The World Press Photo Awards 2012 are on show in the level two foyers of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London until 27 November