'Untraditional' photo wins Bieber award
Hlengiwe Mnguni, News24
Cape Town – Although she has previously won eight category awards at the World Press Photo competition, winning the main award still came as a surprise for South African photographer Jodi Bieber on Friday.
Bieber took top honours for her powerful portrait of Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan woman whose ears and nose had been cut off by her abusive husband after she had left him.
"I didn't feel confident," Bieber told News24, pointing out that the picture which graced the cover of the August 9 2010 issue of Time magazine was not only facing tough competition, but also because it was not a "traditional" one.
"Women in situations like that are almost always portrayed as vulnerable. In this one Aisha is looking quite defiant," said the photographer.
A sentiment expressed by the competition's judges.
"It's an incredibly strong image. It sends out an enormously powerful message to the world, about the 50% of the population that are women, so many of whom still live in miserable conditions, suffering violence. It is strong because the woman looks so dignified, iconic," Ruth Eichhorn, one of the competition's judges, told Reuters.
Bieber who had been commissioned by Time to take photographs of a "whole variety" of Afghan women (including "the Oprah of Afghanistan") attributed the relative ease with which she was able to connect with Aisha to her experience working with South African women in difficult situations.
"It was like two girls having a chat," Bieber said of some moments she and Aisha had a conversation during the photo shoot.
" 'You are so beautiful, and this is what I want to capture. Your power, your inner power'," Bieber told Aisha through an interpreter.
But while the picture has come to represent the fight for women's rights in Afghanistan, at times the response wasn't always good.
The photograph (and the story), which was accompanied by the headline "What happens if we leave Afghanistan" came under fire from some sections of society who perceived it as the exploitation of Aisha's situation to advance the case for the presence of US forces in Afghanistan.
But for Bieber, it went beyond the politics of war: "To talk (about this) is very easy for someone who is sitting in an armchair, who hasn't had their ears and nose cut off."
Proudly South African
According to Bieber, at the time the photograph was taken Aisha had been waiting for her visa to be approved so she could leave the Kabul shelter she was living in and head for the US where she believed she could be safe from her family and where she had an infinitely better chance at reconstructing her brutalised face.
And the attention that followed seems to have helped her plight.
Late last year Aisha started receiving free constructive surgery from the Grossman Burn Foundation in California and now has a new nose.
"I feel fantastic, I feel very, very happy. I feel very proud as a South African," Bieber told News24.