World Press Photo 2012 Winner and a haunting resemblance to Michelangelo’s Pietà

world press photo 2012 yemen samuel aranda michelangelo pieta

World Press Photo of the Year 2012 Contest Winner

Samuel Aranda, a Spanish photojournalist who has covered conflicts and social issues in Spain, Pakistan, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestinian Territories, Morocco and Western Sahara, shot the recently declared World Press Photo of the Year 2011 for New York Times during the clashes in Sanaa last year.

This year, the prestigious World Press Photo awards dedicated to ‘inspire understanding of the world through quality journalism’ were dominated by images of the Arab Spring.

Winning photographs across many categories depict the pain, the agony, the power of people’s movements.

Haunting moments from these revolutions have been frozen in time by photojournalists risking their lives to document the unfolding of events, the tortures and the atrocities, the struggles and the triumphs.

A woman holds a wounded relative in her arms, inside a mosque used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen on 15 October 2011” says the caption of the winning photo by Samuel Aranda on the World Press Photo website.

Blogs, news sites and social media platforms are heating up with discussions of how closely the imagery resembles the artistic portrayal of Jesus and Mary in the Pietà (1498–1499), a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Samuel Aranda has clearly stated while speaking to The British Photography Journal that the resemblance is unintentional, and rightly so, because in a situation like this, one does not pose for a photograph. The picture is a just a moment that could repeat in so many different times in any country or region.

What finds powerful in the picture is a very different depiction of a veiled woman in the world news, and its acknowledgement. While some feel that the picture is a portrayal of women as passive caretakers staying indoors, we see the picture in another light.

The woman is not holding the man in a passive, submissive posture. She is clearly the pillar of strength in this picture.

This photo is not a picture of men and women screaming in the streets or holding slogans.

This image is not a democracy-vs-dictators cliché of toppling statues and looting palaces.

This moment is not the usual depiction of violence, discontent and anarchy in the Middle East.

It is a very sensitive look at what could be a scene inside any house where a mother or sister or wife could be nursing a young mahram (close relative) as she prays for peace in her neighbourhood and the world.

We found views similar to ours expressed by NYC-based photographer Tewfic El-Sawy who eloquently says: “Here’s a photograph of a scene of a badly injured protestor, lovingly cradled by a woman totally veiled, covered in a niqab and wearing gloves. While she is virtually faceless, I  sensed her pain, her suffering and agony by her body language…which no niqab can hide… And yes, niqab-wearing women are sentient human beings…they’re mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and experience suffering, anguish. love and affection as we all do,” El-Sawy posts on The Travel Photographer blog. “That’s why it won,” he believes.

The jury chose an image that shows the face of war, strife, revolution, in a very personal way while evoking a sense of empathy. Without a hint of sensationalism. Or stereotypes the Western world is accustomed to seeing (although some people see a woman as caretaker as a stereotype but fail to see her hold in the picture). That deserves credit.

Yes, there have been similar images that have been likened to the Pieta – but none have been drawn from the Middle East, the Arab world. This is a first. It might provoke debate. But it will not be easily forgotten.

“In the Western media, we seldom see veiled women in this way, at such an intimate moment. It is as if all of the events of the Arab Spring resulted in this single moment – in moments like this,” said jury member Nina Berman.

“We might never know who this woman is, cradling an injured relative, but together they become a living image of the courage of ordinary people that helped create an important chapter in the history of the Middle East,” said Aidan Sullivan, chair of the jury.

“It is easy to portray the aggressiveness of situations like these. This image shows the tenderness that can exist within all the aggression. The violence is still there, but it shows another side,” said Manoocher Deghati who was also in the judging panel.

The contest draws entries by professional press photographers, photojournalists and documentary photographers from across the world, with 5,247 photographers from 124 countries participating this year with 101,254 pictures. honours the patience and faith of ordinary people in the Middle East, brothers and sisters in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Syria that are living through difficult situations not of their choosing. And we salute the courage of the photojournalists who bring us the truth from the frontlines, which we would otherwise never know.

We welcome your comments about the picture and what it means to people in the East, West and the Middle East.

Further reading:

1. The entire collection of winning images from the 55th World Press Photo Contest is available at the official website of the World Press Photo foundation here.

2. Jim Johnson posts similar photos that have made news and why he thinks it was not a good choice. Commentors on his blog differ too.

3. New York Times blog calls the image ‘painterly’ as it has ‘the mood of a Renaissance painting‘ – and it has some of the most inspiring and warm comments on the topic – many calling this image the Arab Spring Pieta or Yemeni Pieta.

4. NPR’s blog calls the image one of “tender repose” and mentions many other striking images like the burning Tibetan monk.

5. Reading the comments in the post by The Independent of the UK, the reader will realise how intensely ingrained the stereotypes about veiled women are in some parts of the world – to the point of many alleging that the photograph has been staged. All the more reason for more journalistic photographs that bring the reality of the humanness of Muslims, Arabs and Middle Eastern people in the view of a wider audience – beyond the beaten-to-death stereotypes of subjugated women and brutal, senseless men.

6. A poem on the World Press Photo 2012 image by American-Iranian spiritual poet Bahareh Amidi who calls it “the picture which speaks of a thousand and one mothers crying for their dead sons“.

7. Madeleine Corcoran has written a beautiful and crisp post in defence of the image where she says “This is indeed not a shot of the ways in which women engaged in and drove the revolution on the ground. On the other hand, the woman looks strong, her grip is fierce. She defines the man’s body. He is an exposed body, she is a force. This is an unusual dynamic and one which makes powerful the woman.”

8. Michael Shaw of Bag News has made a very sharp ‘secular’ observation on the gloves in the picture: “So strong is the polyethylene to me, I skip right past “Virgin mother,” “burka,” and even “relative” to the grimy, bloody urgency and immediacy of triage.” We concur.

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About Farrukh Naeem at

Farrukh Naeem is the Managing Editor of Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. His blog is at


  1. Thank you Farrukh for your commentary and perspective. I was a WPP juror and found myself really taken with this image, not because of its supposed connection to the Pieta, but because of the strength and force of the woman and the moment. I also see it as a great leap forward for those in the western press which tends to depict veiled women as shapes rather than individuals with power and presence.

  2. Farrukh, Thanks for the insightful commentary – with parts of which I take issue, with parts I agree! And thanks too for the link. Peace.

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