Stunning photos capture human drama

The old cliché has it that a picture is worth a thousand words. It's an understatement. A picture can tell a whole story better than words alone. A picture can capture the drama, the agony, the human feeling in a moment, as well as recording the bizarre and the seemingly unreal.

The World Press Photo Exhibition which is open in Wellington until 29 August presents a disturbing array of images, many reflecting the violence and despair of the Middle East, but also of the world's many other trouble spots.

At the opening function Wellington City Councillor Ray Aphiene-Mercer reminded the audience that tragedy is not limited to those living overseas. Referring to the the coroner's findings about the Kahui twins he talked of how loss, grief and crimes against people happen everywhere.

The photos are dominated by passion; genuine human emotions in the raw. The winning photo selected from the over 100 000 snaps submitted for judging is of a young Yemeni man being comforted by his mother after he was part of a protest rally that was hit by tear gas.

He is bare-chested and his face is hidden in the folds of his mother's burka as her arms reach around his body showing the blood and bruises that come from street fighting. Their faces are thus both hidden, which makes the drama more universal.

It is not a mother and son. It is two generations struggling for freedom. It is not the Yemen. It is the whole Middle East. It is not 2011. It is any time where liberty is suppressed by violence.

Previous winners of the best photo award are a catalogue of historic events. In 1957 the winning picture was of black students entered a de-segregated school in the Southern US for the first time. In 1968 it was the policeman shooting a handcuffed Viet Cong suspect in a Saigon street. In 1989, it was the man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

And it is not all human violence. There is the titanic power of nature reflected in the tsunami which hit Japan displacing 340 000 people - vastly greater carnage than Christchurch has ever dared contemplate.

One of the more desperate reflections of the human condition is the shot of the drug addicted sex worker in the Ukraine resting between clients.  It's juxtaposed with the proud but poor model with her tailor in a street stall taking part in Fashion Week in Dakar, Senegal.

Perhaps it is good to disturb our equilibrium and to rock the soul. This exhibition does all that and more.

We have the sponsors, Rabobank, Canon, the New Zealand Netherlands Foundation and the Dominion Post to thank for bringing this exhibition to Wellington (it will also visit Hamilton and Napier.)

The exhibition is on at the Academy of Fine Arts Queens Wharf until 29 August.