When South African photographer Jodi Bieber found out she won the 2010 World Press Photo of the Year, she shrieked.
"You joking!" she yelled on the phone. "Ha! I cannot believe it."
Having won eight previous World Press Photo awards, Bieber said the shock wasn't just that she had won, it was that the jury had chosen this particular photo, a picture which after taking she was sure had failed. Unlike most award-winning news photos which capture action, her photograph, a planned portrait, fell outside traditional photojournalism, and outside what she thought Time magazine would want, she told the Associated Press Sunday.
The image, published on the cover of the August issue of Time, featured a beautiful 18-year-old Afghan woman whose Taliban husband sliced off her ears and nose while his brother pinned her to the ground. The Taliban fighters said they would make Bibi Aisha, who had run away from her husband after abuse from her in-laws, an example for the rest of the village women. The World Press Photo jury chose the photograph from 108,059 submissions.
"If you speak to some people in our field, they will say how can a portrait win the competition?" she said. "A portrait is not photojournalism. Some people believe in the purity of it _ you the fly on the wall, you don't change anything."
The choice of Bieber's nontraditional photo reflected the changing field of photojournalism, a field where the rise of camera phones means that just recording a moment is no longer enough, she said, referencing the World Press jury's special mention to a series of photographs shot by one of the Chilean miners trapped underground. Photographers need to bring something personal to the photo, she told more than 100 people in a discussion in Johannesburg Saturday.
The 44-year-old photographer said that for her, the personal element in Aisha's portrait was its defiance of stereotypes. Bieber said traditional photographers would have framed Aisha as a victim of violence, for example exposing both her cutoff ears and nose. Instead, Bieber referenced Steve McCurry's 1985 National Geographic portrait of a beautiful Afghan woman and asked her to look directly into the camera, with strength.
"Why must we show her as this meek, weak woman?" she said. "If I had photographed her in the other way, in a more vulnerable way - we avoid it. We move and we turn the page. But here, we see a young girl, who's very attractive and her eyes give something of her internal power, and then we see what's happened to her, so we can identify with her."
She said that when she started photographing Aisha at the shelter, she snapped a few shots but could feel something was off.
"It's a bit embarrassing, but I put the camera down and I supposed I noticed she was really beautiful," she said. "I said I could never understand what it feels like to be pinned down and how she must feel, but at the same time I wanted to show her with her power and show her thinking of something beautiful, something good."
After that conversation, the room went light, Bieber said. "And that's what that look is. I think for that moment she took away what happened to her and gave us her inner power, her inner strength."
Bieber's emphasis on Aisha' striking beauty led some critics to say Bieber had objectified her, while others called the photo war pornography. The controversial headline accompanying the photo in Time, which read "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan," led critics to say Bieber had exploited Aisha as war propaganda, she said.
Bieber, who said she hadn't seen the magazine's teaser until after it was published, said despite the criticism, her photo sparked a discussion of violence against women and on America's involvement in Afghanistan. "And if a photograph can create a massive discussion, then that's brilliant," she said.