The Old Church, at the centre of Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, is the location of the yearly World Press Photo exhibition. A very nice building, to me the most beautiful church in town, and certainly an ideal place to visit especially when the late afternoon sun filters through the windows and adds to the already quite suggestive interior. Quite sobering in fact: apart from the nordic white washed walls, the gothic columns and arches, one is in fact walking on grave stones. The whole floor is actually an ancient grave yard, and one can’t help a slight uneasiness at the thought of being disrespectful albeit reassured by the fact that nobody seems to care. Some of these stones are engraved with family arms, or even with images, skulls and skeletons and such like. All are very worn out and can be treacherous to one’s foot hold. Quite the place to indulge in vanitas meditation, I have personally grown fond of it to the point of adopting one of the graves as my favourite and visit it every time that I happen to come. Call it piety, if you will, or hysteria, I find it soothing to be there from time to time.
Old churches have a feel of permancence about them, of unchanging eternity. So does the World Press Photo. Spectacular as they always are, the photographs leave you with a feeling of having seen them before, or at least of being vaguely familiar, or maybe it’s the feeling that they awaken that is familiar and make the experience somehow repetitive. How can it be? Can human tragedy, terrible misery and distress, extreme natural beauty, dramatic action caught at the millisecond, ever become familiar or – banish the thought – boring? It is one of those conclusions at which we do not want to come for fear of being cinical, so a form of self censorship kiks in at the bare suggestion of the feeling. Or maybe it is my age: having seen this over and over, at 45 I have lost sensitivity, while younger people will benefit from the experience therefore making it worthwhile to repeat exactly in the same way.
As it happens a row of computers makes it possible to visit the present and past years of WPP, virtually bringing to the present about forty years of news photography. Truth is, were it not for this wear of the emotions, seeing so much photographs of tragedy would be nothing short of maddening. Nothing seems to be getting better in the world. No matter how many photographs are taken nor how well, matters aren’t improving. So it is unavoidable I guess, that one explosion looks like another, scars are the same, the haunted look on the face of the victims closely related to a common destiny. I can’t decide whether this should be a reason to stop taking photographs, or for future jurors to look differently upon the material that has been sent in, so that the exhibition somehow evolves in new directions. Maybe not, maybe they are right to keep hammering at the same point, hoping ever to make an impact.
I understand the problem of the jury all too well. Next to war and death, everything else feels and is bland and shallow by comparison. So the winner has to be a violent and tragic shot, and other nominees, taken from other kinds of editorial photography, like fashion, must in comparison be regarded as futile and do come across as quite trivial, edonistic, self indulgent, silly in fact and unworthy. It really takes all the soothing that the old graves can give, the sanctity of the place, to balance the crude impact of many of the photographs and help us through and out of the exhibition somehow enriched and willing as opposed to helplessly sad or hopelessly indifferent.