When it comes to visually telling a story, as through photojournalism, what is the value of a photograph? Is it an unrivalled insight into another culture, a vital snapshot of another way of a life? Or an unclear, potentially misleading abstraction of the subject in question?
At this year’s Carmignac Photojournalism Award retrospective, the answer is very much the former, although with room for debate. The exhibition features images from the six winning laureates since the Carmignac Foundation launched the award in 2009, primarily featuring 2013–14 laureate Newsha Tavakolian, and her images of contemporary middle class life in Iran. This is accompanied by extracts from 2014–15 winner Christophe Gin’s portraits of French Guiana, as well as previous exhibitions by Davide Monteleone from Chechnya, Kai Wiedenhöfer from the Gaza Strip, Robin Hammond from Zimbabwe, and Massimo Berruti from Pashtunistan (the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan).
Tavakolian, in particular, provides momentary, time-stamped glimpses into the lives of nine Iranians, who were selected because of her view that they are ‘representative of many people’. Supposedly to provide an antidote to the inflammatory and extremist rhetorics which are often used to portray Iran, she uses three to five photographs of each, showing mild domestic narratives; a sense of daily activity, the forming and breaking of personal relationships, harboured dreams of fame and fortune, which are undoubtedly more relatable – and yet still highly insightful – than more mainstream imagery of the country.
Davide Monteleone, the 2012–13 laureate, is perhaps the photojournalist who most confronts the very idea of photojournalism. Among his in-depth presentations of Chechnya – technically a part of Russia, but culturally and politically seemingly quite separate from the rest of the country – he includes an image of a young actress dressed in a bridal gown, as part of her role in a local film. While child marriages remains a genuine issue in Chechnya, he plays with the instant reaction of the viewer as a reminder of how images without context can quickly lead to strong cultural assumptions. The intimate black-and-white photographs and detailed historical descriptions he provides of Chechnya give a fascinating impression of a region walking a tightrope between two remarkably different societies.
This is an exhibition which serves as a reminder about the variety of life, an unimaginably large number of narratives which couldn’t possibly fit into a single, linear idea of progression. We are reminded that, although a 21st century map of the world may be largely filled in geopolitically, global cultures can still be poles apart. To their credit, each individual contribution admits its own inability to boil the stories and experiences of entire places into simple narratives, and instead give us these successions of images which, as is human, we naturally become thirsty to provide context for.
How exactly the subjective viewer fills the gaps between these images remains very much in the eye of the beholder, and herein lies the dangers of small selections of images being used to express wider stories of, in some cases, entire countries. To what extent will individual preconceived assumptions override the rich and eclectic stories briefly told within the exhibition itself? Certainly, it’s hard not to come away wanting to know more.