The Alfred Fried Photography Award Gala 2013
Peter-Matthias Gaede, GEOEulogy, Vienna 5 November 2013
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
what have we looked at this evening? Or, to rephrase the question: What is the difference between photojournalists, especially outstanding ones, and millions of people with a camera, who occasionally end up with one good photograph by chance? Is it just the technical expertise?
It is certainly much more than that. What are photojournalists for us? I believe that we want them not just to reproduce the outer skin of reality but to hold it in a more penetrating gaze. We expect them to overcome obstacles and to venture into closed worlds. We trust their wisdom and their courage, their capacity for distinguishing essence from effect, deeper truth from first impressions and for recognizing what counts. We rely on their eyes, not just their technical equipment, however expensive it may be, indeed needs to be.
We benefit from their willingness to take risks and to put up with discomfort – in swamps as on barricades. We count on their patience and impatience. We rely on their ability to anticipate situations in order to catch the one moment that might tell the viewer of what went on before and after. And we admire them when they put the people they report on before themselves.
In other words: we need these photographers, who take on life, not just a lifestyle. Who teach us to pause and to concentrate. Who are able to turn a moment caught in the wild into the image of an era. Who transport pictures of the outer world into our inner world, where they evolve from a finished image to one that we form, to our image of the world, our world view.
And yes, even in an age flooded with images, of mass production and frantic consumption of pictures, there are always those few who see so much more than others. Or who look more closely at what others catch only vaguely in passing.
In this respect one award has earned great merit, an award which has at last found its counterpart in the Alfred Fried Photography Award. I am talking about the World Press Photo Award, which I had the honour of introducing in Germany several times. It is a marvellous award, always a conscious confrontation with what should not be suppressed. Sometimes it is an expression of the will to use photographs as protection, sometimes of the need to use them to make the world a little better. More rarely it is 'just' an invitation to enjoy and to marvel. Almost never does it content itself with the poetic quality of everyday life, very rarely does it celebrate the 'sanctity of simplicity', as former winner Lara Jo Regan once said.
This means that essentially what we see there hurts each time. Mostly these are moments of suffering in human history, only the hotspots change in terms of geo-politics, personnel, perpetrators, victims.
As a rule, light only reaches these award winners as if through a tank hatch. The war goes on, blood, sweat and tears continue, the WPPA is a constant attack on our desire for comfort. This is not easily digestible and may ignite our potential for fear and repression. But this is how the news are from the other half of the globe, maybe the larger half, I fear, where the day usually starts with a bullet wound.
Only – what would we not see if the photographs exhibited there did not exist?! They are indeed an appeal against the dying out of any responsibility, any empathy. Their seriousness wants to teach us awareness of a reality that has no press officer. Of circumstances for which no marketing has been invented yet.
All the same, there is an element of irritation in the focus on suffering in this great, world-famous award and many comparable others. We should not delegate our entire claim to ethics and morals to war photography. We too have to make sure that we don't become ambulance chasers! Take Susan Sontag or Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner of the New York Times, who warn about reflecting in photography only the morbid in humans and to get intoxicated on war. War photographer Don McCullin warned that 'There is a danger of walking across battlefields, reflecting on Goya and modern art and photography competitions.'
And there is another danger, that of violating the - albeit unwritten - human right to beauty.
Which is why I think the Alfred Fried Award is such a beautiful idea. Which is why I find we should also honour those photographers who approach themes from our everyday life with passion, intelligence, distinctiveness, emphatically, effectively, movingly and searchingly, maybe even cheerfully and by taking sides. Themes that (could) narrate our lives beyond drug-fuelled prostitution and violent house searches. And must narrate our lives if we want to avoid compassion fatigue.
For the beauty in life, which is easily accused of being banal or even kitschy, many other awards find niches at most. The Alfred Fried Award could become an encouragement to look at good ideas and human visions great and small. It could thematize hope and the big And-Yet and Despite-It-All. It could thematize success and not just failure. It could reward even those photographers who bring out the charm of the insignificant. It could, in a word, thematize the whole person. And not turn a blind eye to anything but excess which is so much easier to find and so much more effective to depict.
Yes it certainly was a risky venture that the Photographische Gesellschaft and Lois Lammerhuber embarked on in sponsoring an award for photography that resists the greed for hard media kicks. And which is more of a wallflower than a bomb crater in the fight for attention, that rare resource. But it is a thoroughly philanthropic venture!
Yes, it is certainly risky to look for exceptional photojournalism in places where you may always meet with the suspicion that whoever goes in search of things positive may just be painting a rosy glow on our bad world. And what might they find other than the image of a carnation stuck into the barrel of a soldier's gun, maybe garnished with a mother kissing her baby?
Yet the excellent photographs, some of which you have seen this evening, refute this as a pre-emptive suspicion. They are about peace but not happy-clappy peace. They are not about the smile found in advertisements. They are not about displaying saturation. They are about visualizing brilliant success. Least of all are they about setting pictures from the edge of the red carpet against those of war, AIDS orphans, refugee camps. Rather they are about silence, contemplation, intimacy, devotion, also about withdrawal, modesty, maybe even too much modesty.
And they are about lying on cows. What an enchanting image by Henning Bode! It will never make the cover of the journal beef, but regardless of the future fate of that cow: Henning Bode has already been included in the hall of fame of my vegetarian secretary after I showed her this togetherness. And such a work points way beyond itself: it tells of devotion to a life that is both touching and brave. This photography is evidence of a sense for the sensation of the insignificant. It shows respect for a man who attempts to make his very own peace with our world, even if this also includes hardships and privations. Not least is this photographic work simply one to fall in love with.
Photography to fall in love with as well as to make you tremble, to startle you – for me this is the almost daring aim of the Alfred Fried Photography Award for the future. We need photography to fall in love with so that we do not walk through life too thin-lipped, too discouraged, too cynical. We need it so that we believe this world could still be changed.
I congratulate the winners of the award wholeheartedly and with great pleasure. May the noble and excellent, ancient, yet obviously quite fresh, Photographische Gesellschaft and the enthusiast, mover and enabler, Lois Lammerhuber, enjoy ever increasing success for their fabulous idea of this award. Thank you!
pmg © 10.05.2013