When A Photograph is Worth More Than A Thousand Words

Bibi Aisha's image taken by renowned photographer Jodi Bieber as it appeared on the cover of the August 2010 issue of Time magazine. The image won the WPP 2010

Photographer Jodi Bieber’s image of Bibi Aisha that won the 2010 World Press Photo of the Year award has some similarities with an iconic image taken by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry in 1985. McCurry took a portrait of an Afghan girl called Sharbat Gula and when the picture was published on the cover of the National Geographic magazine, many people were drawn to her striking green eyes. Aisha is also from Afghanistan and her portrait was published on the cover of TIME magazine in August 2010 and soon sparked a storm of controversy.

At first glance, one notices Aisha’s gaping hole on her nose. Her ears too have been chopped off but the scarf and her long hair conceal that. Her crime? She was accused of “shaming her in-laws” after she ran away from her abusive husband. Her Taliban husband apparently cut off her ears and nose to “teach other women a lesson.” The accompanying text alongside the image on the TIME magazine cover read “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.”

The image attracted contrasting interpretations from different people. For some it functioned as a press image while others saw it as a political image. Some critics accused the photographer of glamourising and objectifying her subject. “You made Aisha look like a model whose nose had been photoshopped away,” one source said. War critics accused the magazine of “war pornography” and of “deliberately manipulating reader’s responses to the war in Afghanistan.” Other critics felt that the World Press Photo (WPP) jury in Amsterdam did not consider the broader issues the image brought out.

WPP judges felt that Bieber’s image stood out among the more than 100,000 submissions they received. Commenting on Aisha’s image, jury chair David Burnett said that “it could be one of those pictures where if somebody says, ‘you know that picture of a girl…’ you know exactly which one they are talking about.”

These varied reactions to the picture raise important questions in documentary photography. First, how should photographers approach their subjects and what responsibilities do photographers have when taking pictures of sensitive subjects?

At a session hosted by South African digital artist Christo Doherty in Johannesburg, Bieber described her approach to the assignment. TIME magazine assigned her to do a portrait series of different women living in Afghanistan. Her translator helped her to get a mental picture of what living in Kabul was like before meeting up with Aisha at the Women for Afghan Women (WAW) shelter.

Bieber then had what she describes as “small talk” with Aisha just to calm her down and took some few pictures. “I felt it was not working so I put my camera down and I saw she was really beautiful. I just saw Aisha for Aisha.” Through her translator, Bieber told Aisha that she could never have imagined how it felt like to experience what she had gone through but what she could do was to work with her to create a portrait to show her inner beauty. “It was a bit weird but I did feel that the energy changed and that was when I took the pictures.”

Bieber revealed that she started doubting herself after she sent off the pictures to TIME magazine and feared that they might be disappointed with the way she photographed Aisha. “Other photographers would probably have photographed her in a vulnerable way; maybe projecting Aisha as a victim of violence; exposing her mutilated nose and ears,” she said.

However, TIME’s managing editor, Richard Stengel described the image as “powerful, shocking and disturbing.” He gave a lengthy explanation in the magazine justifying the use of the image on the cover. His main concern was Aisha’s safety and the effect of the image will have on children. “We do not show this image either in support of the US war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is happening on the ground,” Stengel explained.

Once an image is in the public domain, the photographer has no control of people’s reaction and interpretation. Moreover, a picture could sum up a moment and address a vast audience the world over just like the image of Nguyen Kong’s images of children fleeing down a road in South Vietnam after being burned by a misdirected firebomb in 1972. For Aisha and Sharbat their images are perhaps a reflection of the plight of women living in Afghanistan.

Brenda from the Real Beauty series taken by Jodi Bieber

Bieber’s approach to her work reveals that photography is not all about recording moments but rather photographers need to understand their subjects and add an honest voice to their pictures especially when photographing sensitive topics.

Bieber, previous winner of eight WPP awards, has had several exhibitions locally and abroad. One of the most popular ones is a portrait series of some South African black and white women titled “Real Beauty,” which won the Picture of the Year International award ( POYi ) in 2009. The women Bieber photographed pose just in their underwear projecting either their personality or fantasy. The series explores the idea of women being comfortable with their bodies at a time when most are obsessed with their weight.

 Last year, she published a book titled Soweto (2010), which features colour portraits of cross section of Soweto residents. The pictures reveal the rising sub-cultures among the youth, the prosperity and the general lifestyle of Sowetans, which is quite in contrast with the stereotypic views many have of Soweto.

The book features colour portraits of a cross section of Soweto residents

Between Dogs and Wolves, Growing up in South Africa is a book that features black and white pictures of a generation of young people growing up on the fringes of South African society. “I used photography as a vehicle to discover what was going on in my country and the pictures were a reflection of what was going on.”

Bieber studied at the Market Photo Workshop and later joined The Star newspaper in 1993. She participated in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Master class and in 2010 returned as a Master.


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