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HOLD FOR PIC--South African Photographer Wins Top Honor for Portrait of Maimed Afghan Woman

Bibi Aisha made her first public appearance with her new prosthetic nose at the Grossman Burn Foundation's "The Art of Humanity" gala in Los Angeles, California, October, 2010. (Grossman Burn Foundation)

The photograph that stirred an emotional debate about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has won one of photojournalism's top honors. The 2010 World Press Photo of the Year was awarded this week to South African Jodi Bieber for her portrait of an Afghan woman maimed in a Taliban-sanctioned punishment.

The photograph of Bibi Aisha shows a striking 18-year-old with piercing dark eyes and hair, whose nose and ears were cut off by relatives after fleeing an abusive marriage. The photo was published on the cover of TIME magazine last August with the headline, “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” For some, the photo stirred calls for America to consider its moral imperative to protect the rights of Afghan women. Others accused the magazine of exploiting an emotionally-charged image to boost public support for keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

VOA’s Kate Woodsome spoke with award-winning photographer Jodi Bieber about her famous photo, the controversy over the image and her relationship with Bibi Aisha.

You were surprised by this honor. Why?

“You know, when there is a jury involved, there are many issues--it’s really a woman’s issue--and it’s a portrait and it was controversial. So, in some ways, I think it was a very brave decision to choose the photograph. Never in a million years I suppose, just on a more personal level, would I ever think I would win World Press Photo of the Year.”

Listen to the full interview:

Some say the photo has exploited Bibi Aisha's pain. How did you feel about that?

“Exploiting this woman’s pain? Is that a truth? Is it a reality” The reason I’m posing the question to you is: That is an opinion, right? It’s not a truth or a reality. And really, Aisha wanted to get to America. Aisha had been abused to the worst possible degree that you could imagine. She was sitting in the shelter waiting for a visa to get to America. I don’t know if the photograph helped to get the visa more quickly, but she’s sitting in America now and she’s going through a process where she’s going to receive her ears and nose back. I think for her, I’m sure she would say it’s a benefit. So, I totally have to disagree with that statement that was made. Imagine your ears and nose were cut off and you couldn’t go back to your village. What, do you want to stay in the shelter for the rest of your life?”

When you take a portrait of someone, I suppose you become connected to them in some way. How did you connect with Aisha?

“I found when I was photographing her in the beginning, Aisha is a very beautiful woman and, I mean, I just said to her through a translator, that she is incredibly beautiful and I wanted to try and catch her inner beauty. I could never really understand what it must feel like to have your ears and nose cut off. But I asked her if we could work together to create a portrait which showed her in a way she felt more powerful within herself. I know it sounds weird, but I did have that conversation with her.”

What was she like when you were photographing her?

“Well, she was very shy, but at the same time she was a young woman that came from a village. I communicated with her through my translator. There was a social worker there, so in a way we were in quite a small room. It was so sweet watching her like when finally she started to relax. She was just like a young, normal woman. You know, and she would giggle but it would be very painful for her because it would hurt her nose.”

Did she see the picture? What did she think of it?

“Well, the thing is, I haven’t had any communication with her since that photograph, because when the news broke, you know, she was highly protected. I do believe the New York Times took the article to show her. So she did see that photograph. And I think they posed the question to her, ‘So what do you think will happen to the women of Afghanistan?’ And she basically said, ‘I don’t know, all I know is that I want a new nose.’”