This month I made my second, annual visit to the World Press Photo exhibition. That’s enough severed heads, crushed bodies and utter hopelessness to hold me for another 12 months. Like last year, I came away with the conviction that it’s vitally important to live in a country where World Press Photos are exhibited rather than in a country where World Press Photos are taken. There should be a list. Those rankings that invariably and inexplicably identify Sweden as the happiest place on Earth should include a ‘World Press Photo location frequency’ indicator. Any country where three or more World Press Photo winning shots have been taken should be avoided like the plague – because they almost certainly have the plague, along with a dozen other sudden and exciting ways to die or have parts of your body removed non-consensually.
Also like last year I was amazed by how popular the show is. It’s perfectly possible to look at all the photos in the competition online, for free, and from the comfort of you favourite tea-sipping chair. So what’s the draw of paying for the privilege of looking at the same photos with a lot of other people annoyingly standing in front of them? There’s something queasy about being in a room full of privileged Europeans, who look like they have every intention of popping in somewhere for a latte a bit later on, milling around beautifully shot images of Third-World citizens at or beyond the point of total degradation. I had a mental image of surreal role reversal in which Somali refugees somewhere strolled around two-by-three metre blowups of freckle-faced Danes struggling to come to terms with changes to Facebook.
The point, of course, is that Poland has made the transition from being a place where harrowing news images are shot to being a place where they are coolly appraised while fiddling with an iPhone. Look back at pre-1990 World Press photos and you’ll find not a few images of grim-faced Polish strikers, and militiamen coshing students. This is what is really meant by ‘developing world’ and ‘developed world’ – in the former you anticipate violence and official callousness and in the latter you never think about it. Poland has migrated from one to the other in the space of a generation.
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The events of November 11 have rendered my optimism regarding the absence of future World Press Photo winners originating in Poland questionable. Let’s hope it’s a temporary blip.