It is, of course, to say the least, disconcerting; the sorrow and scars hit us brutally under the bright mall light. But the photos serve to remind us that not only is there suffering while we are shopping, but it is in more places than our minds can hold at once. There are images from the wars in Iraq and Libya which show burns and mutilations, and some from domestic circumstances that are confusing and horrific all the same: one large print shows a 15-year-old girl in Afghanistan, a pink bow in her hair, who set herself on fire because she feared her husband’s rage after she had damaged his television set.
This section of the exhibit does not just focus on the third world. There are photographs of a girl in America who, after battling leukemia for three years, was preparing to die in her own home at the age of twenty-three. There are photos from a Berlin hospice showing individuals’ faces first alive and then unmistakably dead, the life so apparently fallen from them. Seeing these photos is like being unwillingly exposed, standing in front of the image of death, surrounded by shop windows which display soaps and skirts on sale.
“People are confronted,” Sigríður tells me from her shop which faces some of the most graphic photos. “If you put these pictures in another place, in a museum, no one is confronted. People have just come here to go shopping, so they are surprised… the photos take your breath away. It’s good to be confronted once in a while.”
The images are set against an orderly, spotless foreground where prams and strollers are being wheeled casually by, some more quickly than others. Outside a somewhat enclosed area, there is a warning that the images inside may be too strong for children. But the photos facing the outside are nearly as shocking and they are in plain sight. Small children walk by with their parents, and I see one small boy reach up to touch the image of a Chinese man’s back that is all bones and redness due to AIDS, which he acquired from donating blood.
One could argue that children have already been desensitized to images like these from television and movies, but it’s more likely that they just don’t register exactly what they are seeing. As one viewer tells me, “They just don’t get it. When you’re that small, you think everyone’s life is just like yours. When I was little, if it was raining in Akureyri, I thought it was raining everywhere else.”
Reality, however, is not a term that everyone agrees upon for this exhibit. “It’s supposed to portray life as it is, but everyone in the photos is dying or in a war,” a man walking by the display tells me. “These photographers were trying to seek out filth. Then people think there are only dismembered heads in Africa, that that’s all life is there.”
Of course the essence of this type of photography is proof, albeit selective, of what life can be like. When you’re wandering through the mall, it is inconsequential whether these photos represent a tiny corner of reality or the whole of it. Places of deep suffering exist alongside our daily lives, and they are linked. The world these photos present is not different from ours and, in looking, we are more a part of it.
It seems that every parent is guarding their child to the degree they see fit, but there is no shock or outrage at the exhibition’s prominent location. After all, you can’t change reality, but you can choose to walk by it faster.
The World Press Photo exhibition is on display at Kringlan through 18 July.