Some time back, Italian media reported a horrific story of a young couple who had deformed a number of girls, pouring acid on their faces. The motive was jealousy; it turned out the victims were all ex girlfriends of the male perpetrator.
You’d have to search for a while for a better plot for a crime novel. Not that we don’t know that reality sometimes supersedes fantasy, but it is as if our minds unconsciously tuck away those pieces of reality that are too ugly, too harsh, too impressive for us to deal with, and categorises them somewhere between truth and fiction.
I thought of the acid-case as I was walking through the World Press Photo exhibition at Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni. The Palazzo is a suitable place for these photos, it was built for an exhibit that intended to transcend the limit between art and reality. Today’s curators seem to take that legacy seriously, albeit perhaps unintended on this particular occasion.
The art that strikes at least the layperson as good art, is that which evokes emotion. Paintings that strike a chord in the inner world of the spectator, sculptures that bring a piece of marble to life, movies that make you partake in action on the screen. But the artists’ eye is imaginary, their tool is fantasy, what we see is a recreation of certain aspects of life that they want to communicate.
Photojournalists on the other hand, work with reality and their aim to disclose that reality to us, to bring the world that we don’t have access to, to our kitchen tables and our living rooms, and to reveal to us the magnitude of life as it is lived around the globe.
Like regular art, the pictures selected for the World Press Photo certainly evoke emotion, be that awe, cruelty, beauty, or a mix of these. Usually, a good press photo needs all these ingredients to be really good. It is not sufficient for them to be cruel, they need to be beautiful at the same time. They can’t just evoke awe; the very handicraft of photography must also impress.
Sadly, often the contrast between the beauty in the composition of a picture and the actual objective, what we see in the image, reinforces the very distance the photo was made to eliminate. Consider the Chinese girls in Wang TIejun’s picture. They are pupils at an old-fashioned gymnastics school and they are made to sit like that for considerable time to reinforce the muscles in their feet and legs. It is hard not to feel pity for them. At the same time, the composition of the picture, the choice of black and white, the shadows the girls are casting, the way they are looking at each other, perhaps in competition, – how long can you resist? – perhaps in search of mutual support, is undoubtfully beautiful.
That very beauty, however, creates a distance between us and the suffering of these girls, puts their pain on a pedestal for us to gaze at but not share.
Similarly, Michael Hanke’s photo of a Czech boy during a chess game, a personal favourite of mine, is ripe with emotion and probably we all recognise some of the self-righteousness of a small boy that still has to mature and learn to respect, not scorn, opponents. But is there not somewhere in the back of our heads, a sense of gratitude that we did not grow up in a former Soviet country where children were trained to be winners, but paid that practice with their childhoods?
A very different athlete is French tennis player Monfils. He dives for the ball, his racket is stretched out in front of him, and just by looking at Cameron Spencer’s shot, you can feel how the tennis player’s entire body aiming to do just one thing: push the ball back on the other side of the court, in spite of pain he risks incurring. Very few of us are capable of a similar move, the same way that most of our bodies can never match the Monfils’ athletic limbs. Does the picture make Monfils seem more or less human, closer or further from you?
The photos in the exhibition, be they of food on a dinner table in Russia, horses drinking from far away mountain lakes, elephants on African plains, they are all treasures. They are the riches of the world brought straight to us. Yet the contrast between magnificence in the photos and what we see when we look out of our own windows make us feel more removed from what is in the picture, not closer to it.
Even the most terrifying images of war, torture and deprivation have a touch of beauty to them. The two children crying in despair on a boat in the Mediterranean, fathers rescuing their infants during the siege of Aleppo, the father crying over his dead child in Mosul, the fear of the young girl during a raid, also that in the Iraqi city. The horrors combines with the beauty make the photographs to what they are and they make the exhibition worthwhile visiting, (it is a true pleasure spending an hour or two there), but also makes the reality on the photo feel removed and distant from our own lives, not the other way around.
If you do visit the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, you’d do well to spend a few minutes at a very different type of interpretation of reality; The Heroes of East German painter Baselitz. His too, are interpretations of reality. These paintings also evoke emotions and feelings that the painter sees in the world around him, and that we are likely to see in ours, if we open up to them. The two dead children on the field, the pitiful Ralf, his heartbroken giants, his images of Hitler, they are all shades of a world we are a part of and a history we have lived through and these shared experiences make them meaningful to us as spectators.
In fact, perhaps it precisely that art that does not pretend to be anything else, that more readily reaches our hearts and minds. Imagine a photograph of two people in love, then think of Chagall’s painting of himself hand in hand with his wife, she is walking, he is flying by her side. Which transmits more happiness? Or look at a photograph of the sunrise, then compare that to Edward Munch’s painting of the sun. What rays do you feel the warmth from?
I guess the artistry, the fantasy, the cleverness of an artist can be thought of as a way to fool our brains. If we are not forced to accept as real what is too much for us to appreciate as reality, we open the door to those feelings and emotions that we otherwise shun because we fear the effect they’ll have on us. So to answer the question I started this blogpost with: Why do we need art when we have reality? I think we need art to reveal that reality to us. Otherwise we risk that it all becomes a reportage on the news, like the burning of faces with acid, something too cruel to be true.