World press photo of the year 2001

"Form" and "content" in my experience of the World Press Photograph 2001

Short "Research Lab" essay, looking at the form and content of a work of art in response to Susan Sontag's "Against interpretation". I possibly took Sontag a bit too literally but on the whole I'm happy enough about this text to publish it here three years later.

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  1. A rectangle measuring perhaps 40 times 60 centimetres filled with small dots in various hues of grey and black, resolution is not quite low enough to make it look grainy, perhaps 100 dpi. Sharply delineated darker and brighter areas contrast each other.
  2. A boy with a peaceful expression is wrapped in white, 6 dark hands reaching out of various corners arranging the pale cover. The picture draws its power from the symmetry of the hands, the contrast between the dark hands and the bright sheet and between the old, worn-out hands and the innocent, smiling face of the boy.
  3. Jalozai refugee camp, 1 year old by died from dehydration, prepared by three family members for his June funeral. The camp has been overcrowded following draught and wars, and aid workers have been unable to supply enough food and fresh water.
  4. Refugee camp in Afghanistan, a country "liberated by revenge"? - is the 1-year old's blood on our hands? Does the picture speak to us of atrocities we have had a hand in when bringing about the Afghan regime change? Are there echoes of the frightening dark and grey structures left at ground zero in New York?

Definitions

A non-abstract piece of visual art has a form we are allowed or expected to interpret as relating to or depicting something else. It has intended associative content. A press photo is by definition a piece of art with content. It tells or accompanies a story and the viewer will almost always be informed or expect to be informed about the context. Press photos raise interesting questions about where the boundary between the inherent (intended?) content and our interpretation of it is. In the impressions above I have deliberately tried to peel off the layers of impressions but I can not tell whether I have reached beyond the photographer's intended content.

At times the use of terms such as form and content seems to mirror the binary opposition between the terms mind and body. Sontag's "erotics of art" seems to imply something in this direction, about "form" being something explored with the senses rather than with the mind. Of course the processing of sensual impressions is also a mental effort, so the definition does not make complete sense. In the experimental four "layers" of description above, is really the one least concerned with content the one that gives the best description of the form? There may be several "layers" or aspects to form as well as to content, form as technique, form as perfection of execution, form expressed in analytical terms such as "symmetry". There are aspects to content such as "similarity", intended content, connoted content etc.

It is a rather odd and very mental effort to try to analyse such a picture without considering its content - there is certainly nothing "erotic" about the perception of grey dots - and I believe it goes to show that at least in this case there is no purpose in looking at form and content separately - or maybe the point is that what you are left with when trying to ignore "the content" may not be "the form".

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