Homage, Plagiarism or Simply Cliché? Jodi Bieber’s ‘Bibi Aisha’ versus Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’
Last Friday the winner of the World Press Photo Award was announced. South African photographer Jodi Bieber carried home the gong for her picture of an Afghan woman with a mutilated face, which originally graced Time Magazine dated July 29 in 2010. It is a memorable picture, if only because most viewers upon seeing it will have immediately and instinctively touched their noses to feel if it is still there. It is a gruesome and emotive picture as well. Accompanied by the story of how Bibi Aisha actually lost her nose and ears courtesy of some Taliban justice, it immediately causes a gut reaction in the viewer. In this sense, it is a classic photojournalistic endeavour: it is a call to arms, full of righteous indignation. The photograph and the story nevertheless provide a neat solution and a happy ending: Bibi Aisha is now safe in the United States and has undergone reconstructive surgery. It is obvious why the sheer drama of Bieber’s image resonated with the jury of the World Press Photo competition.
On another level though, the photograph encapsulates much that is amiss with contemporary photojournalism. After the gut reaction, I was puzzled by the picture and then suddenly some pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. To explain, I need to take you back in time to the publication in June 1985 of Steve McCurry’s photograph of an Afghan girl. She is positioned in exactly the same manner as Bibi Aisha. She also wears a headscarf, but a red one rather than a striped one. The background is green in McCurry’s picture, green-greyish in Bieber’s. Both Afghan girls are young, dark-haired and possess the most striking pairs of eyes. McCurry reported on the plight of Afghan women then, as does Bieber now. McCurry’s picture appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, that other stalwart of classic printed photojournalism. The image of the Afghan girl became known as the most recognised photograph in the history of the publication. Thus to all intents and purposes the pictures are the same.
In this sense, it is a classic photojournalistic endeavour: it is a call to arms, full of righteous indignation. On another level though, the photograph encapsulates much that is amiss with contemporary photojournalism.
So what is happening here? The award-winning image is so unlike Bieber’s other work. She generally photographs her subjects in their surroundings, where objects in the frame give vital clues about the subjects’ lives and personalities. Women’s issues are a recurring theme in Bieber’s work, from portraying women suffering from domestic violence in South Africa, to criticising perceived notions of the perfect female body, to depicting the aftermath of sexual violence in Africa’s wars, to investigating ingrained gender discrimination, and lack of educational opportunities for girls in Asia. The suffering her subjects have endured is subtly alluded to in her images. The pictures are subdued, considered and respectful. The photograph of Bibi Aisha is almost blunt in comparison and in my opinion does Bieber no credit.
The image of Bibi Aisha is emblematic of McCurry’s style, portraying earnestly looking people staring directly into the camera with their strange and colourful appearances and attires. McCurry has become a master in depicting the Exotic Other. I find it sad that with this particular image Bieber seems to have fallen into the same trap. When she took the picture of Bibi Aisha, did she have McCurry’s ‘Afghan girl’ in mind? Was she paying tribute to his work? Or was she, consciously or not, plagiarising his picture? The saddest thing of all however, is that our view of Afghan women has photographically not progressed one bit since 1985. And despite the call to arms and all the righteous indignation, the situation in Afghanistan remains dire for women.