Pictures of the Year International, on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts until September 22. 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-238-7559; mopa.org
In Kinsasha, a troubled, impoverished city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the most popular public entertainment is wrestling, similar to the WWF sport but with a difference: the wrestlers contest each other with body slams and fetishes. It’s gris-gris sport. Some wrestlers dress like luchador meanies, others like shamans carrying beads and assorted voodoo apparatus. One kind performs raging-wrath theatrics, the other magical light-footed dances. Sometimes they match up against each other. Muscle meets ju-ju.
Colin Delfosse’s images of Congolese wrestlers are included in Pictures of the Year International, currently at the Museum of Photographic Arts. One contender is a conventional buffed Avenger type, but another wears skirts and holds aloft a snake he seems about to devour. Yet another, ghostly in white body paint and wearing an imposing headdress of antelope horns, holds under his arm a brightly painted box, a fetish-ark I suppose, and his hipshot stance says he’s expecting serious business.
These photos combine the conventions of contemporary Third World portraiture (local setting, straight-on full-body pose, saturated colors) with a National Geographic anthropological appeal. The 80 images in POYi, an annual juried competition that selects 240 pictures from nearly 50,000 entered in competition, tip us into faraway cultures, sometimes in traumatic moments, and bear witness to events that, once we know the backstory, speak to social issues. The hidden narrative matters: an intimate black-and-white image of a family member attending to the bodily functions of a young man severely brain damaged while in a coma by an overdose of pain-killers speaks to the indiscriminate dispensing of opioids in America — doctors now write over 300 million scripts a year.
Henry Fox Talbot, the 19th-century founder of negative-to-positive photography, spoke of photography’s “mute testimony” and said that it was “evidence of a novel kind.” Photojournalism is especially urgent testimony and evidence. It reports what’s there but intensifies or enhances or biases what’s there. An emotional charge (or chill) can be achieved simply by composition, as in Vincent Yu’s epic picture of hundreds of North Korean military personnel gathered in a stadium in Pyongyang. Each pictorial zone isolates a set of anonymous forms: officers on the field are seen only by the discs of their hats; other officials fill boxy bleacher decks. The stadium is a church where authority is worshiped. The buttery blue sky wedged high in a corner looks puny, as if even nature is subject to totalitarian organization.
POYi stirs up a familiar prickly issue: what moral implications ensue when a photo meant to bear witness also manipulates or gussies up its contents? Consider Oded Balilty’s portraits of young Palestinian “stone throwers.” Their faces concealed by a kaffiyeh or hood or gas mask, these anonymous presences have the sleek, carefully posed menace of brooding males that stalk the pages of fashion magazines. The photos are terrorist chic. Rick Loomis, on the other hand, in his shot of five newborns in a Manila hospital where 50 to 100 babies are born daily, doesn’t photograph the little wailers for their cuteness. They look like creatures of a day and remind us that in an overpopulated world, millions of children are born into want, harm, and the kind of dreadful uncertainty that in First World nations isn’t nearly as pressing. Life’s contingencies are also gently exposed in Paul Hansen’s image of a Haitian slum, where a coffin maker plies his trade in the open air while barefoot kids play soccer on a street named after Pelé.
A subset of photographs is about transient populations. From an overpass along Highway 85 in Monterrey, Mexico, Alejandro Cartagena snapped pictures of pickup trucks carrying workers on their early-morning commute to faraway jobs. They sit or sleep or sprawl among their wheelbarrows, sacks, ropes, water bottles, street cones, and tools: the overhead view makes the flatbeds look like generously sized, gaily colored group coffins. Close to these are photos documenting another transient population. In 2012, 30,000 refugees fled Sudan’s Blue Nile state and crossed in South Sudan. Shannon Jensen photographed their footwear: crudely roped-together sandals and shoes that look like decrepit dance or party accessories, some in the high-keyed greens and reds of those pickup trucks. They look like poverty fetishes. The hallucinatory specificity and saturation of inkjet printing push the images away from their originating distressful circumstances. While Jensen’s pictures disclose a dreadful and heroic truth about human endurance, it’s also easy to imagine these beaten, torn, crusty things as inspiration for a line of designer shoes.
Gifted photographers cannot not make an emotionally textured, formally refined, visually complex picture. Good war photographers snap pictures in the most horrendous, mercurial settings, but their compositional sense is so instinctive that even the most explosive, on-the-run snapshot will give compelling shape to an incoherent moment. Paul Hansen photographed a surging throng of grieving males crowding a street in Gaza, bearing in their arms two young brothers killed in an Israeli attack. It’s a moment of anguished chaos that also looks like a brilliantly staged movie scene.
Pictures of the Year International throws a wide net. Its sports pictures are smashing: supple fencers in their elegant Ninja-style garb look wired together by their foils; sailors training for the World Cup cling to a catamaran’s rigging like spiders; in Kabul, a splashy, murderous crush of muddied riders and horses pursue a dead calf in a Buzkashi match. And Bob Croslin’s regal portraits of an egret, cedar waxwing, and other residents of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Florida, photographed against jewel-box velvet black backgrounds, have such crisp resolution that their feathers look like cutting tools.
Not all the animal photos are as delectable. Brent Stirton documented a mass killing of elephants in Bouba Ndjida National Park in North Cameroon, where in a three-month period over 500 animals were killed. (The poachers, on horseback, were armed with grenades, light machine guns, and AK-47s.) One picture from the sequence, though, presents a twisted, cynical logic. Along with images of the slaughter, Stirton also photographed the burning of five tons of tusks, recovered from a seizure, that were destroyed by the Kenyans in protest of the decimation of Africa’s elephants, though none of the ivory was from Kenya.