I stood dumbstruck in front of Arash Khamooshi photographs, part of the winning entries for the 2015 World Press Photo competition and exhibited on the pleasant surrounding of Freedom Park during the 6th Lagos Photo Festival. His images show a hooded man who was due to be hanged for killing his friend in a street fight; locals have gathered, a common practice in the region, expecting the moment when the chair will be pushed under the offender’s feet and he dangles from the noose.
But in a pleasant and surprising twist, the condemned man is pardoned, saved by the dead friend’s mother with a slap, “an act of symbolic forgiveness” [which] puts an end to the execution”. Iran, the story goes, is believed the have the second highest number of state-sanctioned executions across the world, next to China.
A toxic world
I was still trying to process the story of a man who got a second chance on life when my eyes caught another set of photographs by Fatemeh Behboudi, also focused on Iran and about some Iranian women in their seventies who lost male members of their families in the tortuous eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), “one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century”, says the accompanying text. “Bodies are still being discovered and repatriated. Many mothers of missing soldiers live in hope of seeing their sons again or finally having a body that they may bury,”
In yet another series of haunting photographs, Sergey Ponomarev trains his lens on sorrowing families after Israel launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’ on Gaza city. “The offensive lasted seven weeks, during which more than 2100 people were killed in Gaza, 69 percent of which, according to the UN, were civilians”.
One of the pictures shows two brothers weeping, covered in blood and holding tightly to each other; their father died during the shelling. Another image shows dead Palestinians across a hospital floor, their grieving families in tears.
Across the walkway, picture after picture showed more instances of death and dying, among them the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine that killed all 298 people on board. I followed reports of that sad incident on international television but, thanks to broadcast limitations and guidelines, at no time did I see bodies on the screen. But Jerome Sessini got closer to capture the horrid details; one of his pictures is of a dead passenger still strapped to his seat.
There is still more bad news: Pete Muller’s images of Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone are as shocking as the 7,880 lives claimed by the virus in three West African countries, including Guinea and Liberia. At that point I thought I’d had enough blood chilling visuals for one night; I slowly walk away to parts of the exhibition area to view images of a less disturbing kind: Massimo Sestini’s aerial shot of a boat overloaded with migrants on the Mediterranean; Fulvio Bugani’s transgender subjects in a makeshift school in Indonesia; Paolo Verzone’s portraits of cadets from top-notch military academies in Europe; Glenna Gordon’s touching collection on the kidnapped Chibok girls in Northern Nigeria;
Like the Iranian execution episode, Sofia Valiente’s portraits of sex offenders confined to spend the rest of their lives in a place called ‘Miracle Village’ in South Florida were a revelation. For their crimes, these men and women “cannot own a laptop or mobile phone”.
I did not pay too much attention to Mads Nissen’s photograph of a gay couple immersed in an intimate moment in an apartment somewhere in Russia. Anyone can imagine my shock when I read later that it was named the World Press Photo for the year in review (2014). Out of a pool of 98,000 images from 5000+ photographers in 131 countries, the jury found a finely composed sex scene more worthy of the grand prize. To quote one of the many comments I read after the announcement, this is plain “excellent propaganda”
I don’t mean to slight the LGBT crowd, but that is the height of absurdity. I am even more wary that no African photojournalist made the final set of winners, and there are quite a good number of them doing fantastic news and documentary photography on the continent. @PeluAwofeso