Finding Beauty in Hardship

The annual exhibition delivers hard truths as always, with a few light-hearted moments

Nguyen Thi Li, aged 9, daughter of victims exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War; on display at the Westlicht Gallery | Photo: Ed Kashi

A review of the award-winning press photos from 2010 reveals a hard truth about visual news: Much of it is difficult to look at. Despair of those forgotten, atrocities of war, the heartbreak of personal loss characterize the images that hang in the Westlicht Gallery until Oct. 9.

At first glance this world feels sinister, doomed perhaps to destroy itself. Yet, these photographs are like palimpsests, often revealing another layer of meaning beneath the unsettling images.

Such a message is conveyed in Jodi Bieber’s famous Photo of the Year of Bibi Asha, 18, whose nose was cut off at a Taliban officer’s command after she fled her abusive household. The male members of the household claimed it felt like their nose had been removed, and therefore returned the favor. In spite of her deformity and the cruelty of her story, Asha possesses an inner strength in her regard, testament to the power of the human will.

Some portraits remind us of the innocent victims of war, as in Ed Kashi’s portrait of a Vietnamese girl, aged nine, who eyes lie at an uncanny distance across her flattened face, deformities from her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. She is one of an estimated 150,000 children with such a condition.

Man in the rubble of Mogadishu carries a shark to be prepared for export | Photo: Feisal Omar

The despair of loss is well documented in the exhibit, from those mourning the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and those commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, to monks arranging a mass burial of earthquake victims in the Tibetan mountains. Yet, heart-wrenching images such as the mass burial remind the viewer of the awesome power of nature for harm, a common thread in subjects as the volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, the oil spills in China and Louisiana, monsoons in Pakistan, and the earthquake in Haiti.

Other works speak to the lives we lead in virtual worlds. Berlin native Wolfram Hahn photographed individuals re-enacting the moment they took their profile picture for a social networking website. Michael Wolf selected a series of incidents caught using Google’s Street View, a bicyclist getting rammed by a driver, an elderly lady lying on the sidewalk while another man  nearby, or a man defecating behind a car. The viewer imagines that the vehicle capturing the image and advancing down the street as if nothing wrong is happening.

Self-portrait for MySpace | Photo: Wolfram Hahn

The more lighthearted images chronicle the spectacle of sport, including Italian Daniele Tamagni’s almost hilarious portraits of female freestyle wrestlers in Bolivia. Australian Adam Pretty boasts an impressive portfolio of images, including eventual Gold medalist Cao Yuan of China completing a dive at the Asian Games in Guangzhou. In an almost sublime, underwater shot, Yuan’s billowing water-trail resembles a cross, at the base of which he seemingly kneels.

Sport can also be painful, as is evidenced in the ungraspable image of a bull goring a Spanish matador through the bottom of his jaw, the tip of the horn exiting his mouth.

Such images are reminders of the power of photography to stop time and those rare, unexpected and imperceptible milliseconds of our world that only a photographer can capture.

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