From Images of Piety to the Arab Spring and Anonymous Women in Burkas

From Images of Piety to the Arab Spring and Anonymous Women in Burkas March 27, 2012

The World Press Photo contest is a competition where the best professional photographers have a chance to showcase their work. The contest focuses on photojournalism and features photographers from all over the world.

Last year the controversial photo of Bibi Aisha, taken by Jodi Bieber and featured in Time Magazine (which MMW covered here), won first prize in the Portraits/Singles category.

Fatima al-Qaws is pictured holding her injured son in the World Press Photo of 2011. Image via (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography.

This year’s contest featured over 5000 photographers and more than 100,000 photos. Due to the number of political issues arising from (mainly Arab) Muslim countries in 2011, quite a few pictures of Muslim women made it into the selection and won prizes. Stephanie Sinclair won first prize in the Contemporary Issues/Stories category for her photo of child brides, taken in Yemen, and Simona Ghizzoni won third place in the Contemporary Issues/Singles category for her picture of Jamila, a Gaza resident injured during an Israeli operation. The World Press Photo of the Year (2011) was Samuel Aranda’s picture featuring Fatima al-Qaws cradling her son after being attacked with tear gas during a demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen.

The photograph shows a niqabi woman wearing latex gloves and holding a shirtless injured man. At the beginning, shortly after the picture was taken, the identity of mother and son remained anonymous. The scene, which is surrounded by a dramatic atmosphere, resembles the image of Michelangelo’s pietà (which depicts Virgin Mary holding Jesus’ body), and has been compared to a Renaissance painting.

Samuel Aranda, a Spanish freelance photographer, saw this picture as a way to remind the world about Yemen’s situation. However, it’s hard to know how much this photo really does tell us about Yemen. In the past few months, the image has stirred some controversy, along with interesting interpretations that are not always related to the specific context in which the picture was taken.

At the forefront of the selection process, a World Press Photo jury member said that the image speaks for “the entire region” (i.e. Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia) and legitimizes women’s participation in the movement. Another jury member, Aidan Sullivan, felt that the picture was an image capturing the compassion and courage of those participating in the revolution. Yet his comments on the mystery of the woman’s identity emphasize how al-Qaws has been described in terms of niqabs, burqas and black robes. Sullivan has been quoted as saying:

“We might never know who this woman is, cradling an injured relative, but together they become a living image of the courage of ordinary people that helped create an important chapter in the history of the Middle East.”

While describing the picture, the Huffington Post emphasized the unknown identity of the woman and instead described her in relation to her “black robes.” In addition, there was not much on al-Qaws’ participation in the revolution (as is described here), thus reducing the picture into a discussion about the “anonymous niqabi” showing compassion for “a relative” and contributing to an imagery of Middle Eastern Muslim women as only anonymous women covered in black.

For some others, the parallel with Christian iconography is what seems to appeal to Western audiences, although they say this is not what the picture is about. The (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography blog analyzes the image carefully, only to conclude that the image does not depict the Arab Spring, due to the personal nature of the moment, that it does not depict the role of women as “beyond” caregivers, but instead reinforces gender roles. Finally, it argues that the image only promotes the identification of niqabs and burqas with Christian iconography.

The problem with this photo is not the image itself. This, as some critics have pointed out, is an intimate moment in a setting of conflict. The issue is what the image has been said to depict and to represent. Trying to look for symbols and interpret them in particular ways is not always a good idea, because symbols are not universal. Personally, what I find problematic with this image is the fact that it has been interpreted and reinterpreted in order to find meaning, as if a niqabi woman cradling an injured man needed more explanation. The comparisons with religious imagery seem to be an attempt to normalize and neutralize the moment and to fit it into our preconceived notions of what women’s roles in conflict are.

While I am not a qualified art critic, and I think the picture is beautiful on its own, I wonder: why all this need to find a satisfying deeper meaning or to link it to what we expect it to represent?

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