The World Press Photo exhibition at the Southbank Centre, a platform of the best photojournalism and multimedia storytelling of 2017, doesn’t allow for the easy wandering and occasional reading of most exhibition experiences. I watched as one woman slowly wandered between the display boards, glass of wine in hand – but rather than the metropolitan air of a disengaged gallery opening, this felt like the consumption of a necessary anaesthetic, something to dampen the mind from surplus sounds so that the photographic expanse could be witnessed, digested, even if not entirely understood.
Because it is baffling. The scope of experience and breadth of pain depicted by these works is difficult to actually comprehend when you are simply standing in front of these images, static and semi-detached in the echoing expanse of the Southbank. To observe the flat, beautiful (which they are, if you squint enough to obscure the human traces, see the composition over the suffering) feels someway absurd. Their existence, the act of documentation itself, is absurd. That the events they depict have happened, is absurd. To remember that behind these photographs is a photographer to document these scenes, when lives and landscapes are imploding, are being obliterated before the lens of a camera, is absurd.
The winning photo, Burhan Ozbilici’s image of the moment the Turkish ambassador was shot dead in an art gallery, is absurd. It looks like a still from a movie. The visual structure is strong, and shocking , the attacker’s outstretched arm running horizontal to a line of pictures hung on the wall behind, contextualising that this is a gallery. This scene, captured as if a work of performance art, occurs during an opening of an art gallery. But the subsequent photo, which, unlike the action-still frame of the moment after the assassination, shows neither protagonist (assassin nor ambassador). Instead, it shows the frozen, frightened faces of onlookers, people who happened to also be there at the moment when a gunshot separated ordinary people into perpetrator / victim / witness.
You are made witness. As a viewer of these images, you are not permitted to be mere onlooker. You are made witness to these atrocities, deaths, and extraordinary instances of human endeavour, endurance and ability. You are implicated in the crimes. Made guilty by observation – in Valery Melnikov’s image of the couple running from their burning house after it was hit in Ukraine, in Mathieu Willcock’s image of two migrants battling against the waters after their rubber raft capsized, in Amber Bracken’s image of a Dakota pipeline protestor after being peppersprayed. These images are urgent and brutal, and essential to witness.