The globe’s best photojournalists are recognised in this year’s World Press Photo Exhibition, currently in Sydney. Lucinda Garbutt-Young found out why the exhibit is so striking, and what it means for the future of creative journalism.
The State Library of NSW’s dark-lit rooms reveal moving images from 2019. Amongst them is documentation of civil wars, famine, domestic-tiger raising, and the recent Australian bushfires, all hung in the same space.
Though most of the images were created for news circulation and follow traditional conventions, the exhibition showcases artistic prestige. The aesthetic quality of each image offers a deeper interaction with contemporary news issues than usual media.
The works capture moments in time that text or broadcast news cannot, crisis moments in war zones and the inside of people’s homes. Personal lives lay bare. Many images focus on the eyes of subjects; behind those pupils are lives laden with meaning.
“There’s a diverse range of… intimate human issues,” a viewer said. “There are some big topics, but this [photography] gives a really human aspect.”
The exhibition was split into eight sections for five rotations of judging. However, the images now hang together and narratives of contemporary society intertwine. It appears each image is given its own space to influence.
“I’m always amazed by [issues and places] I’ve never heard of. Imagery is memorable stuff,” said another viewer.
Documentary photographer Matthew Abbott won second prize in the ‘Stories’ category (a series of two-ten images) for his depiction of last year’s bushfires.
Many of his images were purposed for the New York Times.
Abbott’s “moody” exhibition works tell the harrowing stories of holidaymakers and locals along the Eastern coastline, yet they’re also ode to the photographer’s first fire chase.
“This is a little different for me; I hadn’t photographed fires, really, before this,” he said.
Abbott, like other photographers in the exhibition, covered large geographical area to achieve his photographs.
Some of the areas Abbott photographed in last year. (Images: Supplied, Matthew Abbott. Audio: Creative Commons)
Iterating the words of viewers, Abbott felt images in the exhibition cast human experience on broader issues.
“These fires… are a very visual, dramatic consequence of issues that we’re facing around climate change and global warming.”
To do this, he believes artistic and journalistic integrity should be inherently related.
“I’m not interested in showing just a flame. I’d rather be contextualising and showing… like a painting, like a wide landscape. Kind of like a Renaissance painting,” he said.
“When I’m working, I’m definitely very conscious of what I’m including in the frame, what I’m excluding. I’m trying to make big… images with a lot going on. That’s what really excites me, is trying to tell epic stories in photographs.”
He added that each series of photos is sequenced to tell an important story of human significance. Abbott looks past lineal story-telling to give each issue character. Concern for context is evident.
“I wanted to focus as much as possible on the… human tolls [of the fires],” he said.
And this connection with humanity is evident across all work in the exhibit.
Bridging art and journalism, this year’s free exhibition will hopefully encourage Sydney residents to interact with new issues on a personal level.
And Abbott hopes it will bring more people to consider the relationship of art and journalism as an important one.
The World Press Photo Exhibition is held at the NSW State Library until October 18.