Truth is Beauty
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Truth is Beauty

World Press Photo is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the support of photojournalism around the world. Their prestigious annual photo contest dates back to 1955; winning photographs from years past include some of journalism’s most famous images: Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam, a lone demonstrator confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of religious persecution. Each year, World Press Photo puts on an exhibition of the top-placing submissions in ten different categories. Culled from more than 80,000 submissions, the exhibition is mounted in several dozen countries and aims to teach us both about the state of our world and the state of photojournalism.
The exhibition is perhaps a bit more subdued than you might expect, both in subject matter and composition. As jury chairman Gary Knight explains in his curatorial statement: “The judges made a deliberate decision to prioritize what we considered to be the best photography of an issue, rather than the issue itself… One of the results of that decision is that many of the grave issues of our time do not appear in the exhibition, because the jury felt that they were not photographed well enough.” Knight’s refreshingly frank description of the exhibit does a good job of honestly assessing the photojournalistic landscape and provides some helpful context for the jury’s decisions. Specifically, he points out that the purpose was to reward photographs that provoke discussion about their subjects rather than ones which offer simple story-telling: “This is as much about journalism as it is about photography, and in walking through this exhibition the viewer accepts a responsibility handed on by the photographers and the jury to learn.” In this the exhibit certainly succeeds: the tone of the show is undeniably journalistic, provoking curiosity at least as much as it provides aesthetic gratification.
World Press Photo is a high-profile show, but it isn’t a blockbuster one—and we mean that in a very good way. It makes its points quietly, working its way under your skin rather than beating you over the head with blunt instruments. The point isn’t so much to wow (though some images undoubtedly do this) but to intrigue. The colours were noticeably muted in most of this year’s photographs, for instance, but this is compensated for by their textural qualities: many of the images could easily pass for paintings and do a better job of revealing their subjects than more vivid but less subtle versions would have. This year’s exhibit isn’t necessarily the best in recent memory, but given how high the threshold in question is, even a merely decent year’s work is well worth seeing.
World Press Photo 08 can be seen daily from 7 a.m.–10 p.m. in Brookfield Place until October 22.