Morning Story: Masterful exhibition a must see


It was the day I discovered what the expression "sick to my stomach" meant.

If the memory's correct it was about 18 years ago on a blinder of a Wellington morning.

I awoke to sunshine and hatched a plan to make a fancy sandwich and stroll to Wellington's Oriental Parade, where I then intended to demolish it.

I threw some bacon in the pan and sliced some Italian tomatoes before spreading mayonnaise and avocado across two thick slabs of homemade bread.

Sandwich in tow, I descended from the suburb of Wilton for the one-hour walk to the city.

In town, I happened across a temporary exhibition of R18 photographs hosted by some global amnesty organisation.

Pre-warned the exhibition "contains graphic violence" I ventured in curiously.

For most readers it's Monday morning, so I won't be specific. But I'd walked into a horror show. The images were the handiwork of a despot with a penchant for torture and photography.

I arrived at my beachside destination and, as planned, sat down to eat lunch. I opened my bag, took out the cling-wrapped masterpiece and binned it.

Man's inhumanity to man had ruined my appetite.

As I watched the city jog, bike, drive and power-talk along Oriental Parade, a sense of shame kicked in. Shame at being so privileged, shame at such prior ignorance and shame for belonging to the same species as the man responsible for the photos.

The lunchless day was revisited last Friday on pulling up to the World Press Photo Exhibition in Napier.

Wary of the inevitable trauma, I ate beforehand.

But this exhibition was incomparable. Certainly of a different league to the former, which was humanity without hope. Segments of the latter mirrored this, but then it also presented with moral compass in hand - and proceeded to visit every point.

The seven heavenly virtues were delineated as deftly as the deadly sins.

This is a masterful display of lensmanship; courageous, patient, sometimes out-and-out lucky.

Yet all deserving of space on this acclaimed wall.

The winning shot, and unquestionably so, is a snap by Spaniard Samuel Aranda of a Yemeni woman cradling her injured teenaged son during protests.

It's remarkable from every perspective. The mother's face is hidden by a black headdress and her son's countenance, too, is barely visible. It's dangerously close to being a faceless shot. Which makes its emotional punch all the more remarkable.

It's also deathly. Dressed entirely in black, the woman is both an angel of death trying to snatch the teenager and a mother rebuking death. Insanely harrowing. Insanely beautiful.

On leaving, I had a quick flick through the visitors' book. Comments ranged from "OMG!" and "Excellent" to "Heart wrenching".

But what struck me the most was the prevalence of scribblings to the effect: "Makes me realise how lucky we are to live in New Zealand."

A rather strange take-home message, I thought. Do these Shaky Isles have no horror?

These aren't rhetorical questions. I left with many such unanswered thoughts.

But I'm guessing that's why this exhibition is so effective. Conventions are challenged, questions remain unanswered.

It's a testament of this global exhibition that we leave different people than when we walked in. Certainly I did.

Because for all the composition and aesthetic gift these photographers have, their true talent is being able to take a shot that is as indelible on our minds as it is on the wall.

If I can have the luxury of writing an imperative sentence, it would be the following: Get to this show.

Entry is $5 - the price of a sandwich.

The World Press Photo Exhibition will continue at the Photographer's Gallery on 138 Tennyson Street, Napier, until October 28.

Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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