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Whither World Press Photo? (1)

As previously mentioned, on April 16, 2000 I delivered the keynote address to the World Press Photo Awards Days gathering in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Organized by the World Press Photo Foundation, this is an annual celebration of documentary, photojournalism, and press photography held in the Dutch capital, where World Press Photo — henceforth WPP — was founded in 1955. WPP’s Awards Days program, which includes the premiere of that year’s annual exhibition, brings together professionals in the field of information-based imagery: photographers, of course, but also picture editors, periodical and book publishers, directors of picture agencies, representatives of various photo-industry companies (Kodak, Nikon, etc.), and others.

World Press Photo logo

Though I’d seen, and sometimes reviewed, previous editions of the WPP annual exhibition, that Amsterdam visit marked the first time I’d had the opportunity to see the show installed under its creators’ complete control, the way they wanted it seen, not adjusted to the exigencies of other presentational spaces on its subsequent tour. A few days thereafter, on April 19, 2000, I wrote the following email to Árpád Gerecsey, then the director of the World Press Photo Foundation. Seeing an installation of the 2011 edition of the World Press Photo exhibition at Mesiac Fotografie (Month of Photography) in Bratislava last week — where I’d spent time with several earlier editions of the WPP show in 1998 — reminded me that nothing much had changed 11 years on, so this commentary still pertains. — A. D. C., Paris, France.

Dear Árpád:

World Press Photo Awards Days, Amsterdam, 2000. Photograph © 2000 by World Press Photo Foundation.

World Press Photo Awards Days, Amsterdam, 2000. Photograph © 2000 by World Press Photo Foundation.

Pursuant to our discussions over dinner on the 14th and other quiet moments, I’m putting down here some of my thoughts about the future of the World Press Photo Awards, especially in regard to its impact on the public via the exhibition and book. Please consider this an open letter that you’re welcome to circulate among your colleagues for discussion.

Let me bite the hand that’s just fed me so well by asking a question that’s nagged at me for years: Why do the World Press Photo annual exhibitions all look exactly the same?

This cookie-cutter aspect of your yearly surveys struck me most forcibly during a November 1998 visit to the Slovak Republic, where I’d gone to participate in the Month of Photography organized by Fotofo in Bratislava. They’d imported several editions of the WPP Awards show, and as I moved between them I found that I couldn’t tell one from the other.

I realize, of course, that this is not entirely the fault of the photographers involved. Like any communications system, the corporate structure through which photo-reportage reaches the public encourages the transmission of certain kinds of data and impedes the flow of other sorts. And photojournalists and press photographers have far too little say in that process.

World Press Photo exhibition catalog cover, 2011.

World Press Photo exhibition catalog cover, 2011. Portrait of Afghan female Bibi Aisha by Jodi Bieber.

Nonetheless, looking at these two surveys back to back, it seemed obvious that, for the world as seen by World Press Photo, the major events of each year were natural catastrophes like earthquakes, man-made calamities like train wrecks and oil spills, people slaughtering each other over lunatic ancient feuds, poor people dying like flies, technological innovations, sporting competitions, and the public activities of figures from the world of entertainment. It would have been easy to conclude that these events simply rotate around the world according to some obscure distribution method: this year India gets the earthquake, next year they’re the cutting edge of computer programming. And it would have been equally easy to conclude that the photographers who covered these stories — virtually indistinguishable from each other on any stylistic basis, at least in the context of this show — received those assignments according to some equally mysterious and perhaps absolutely random process.

Line up your annual catalogues for these shows, cover up the dates and names and captions, and I’m willing to bet that few people — even among your colleagues in the field — could tell you who made most of the photographs, in what year, and in what country. They all look like stock shots to me — even when I know the often distinctive larger projects and bodies of work from which they’ve been extracted, produced by photographers who do indeed have an individual vision and a personal voice and the hard-won ability to present a coherent, investigative analysis of a complex social situation. Everything looks homogenized and decontextualized, freeze-dried and reconstituted, and terminally clichéd. When I was reviewing for the New York Observer and other publications from 1988 through 1997, I rarely wrote about the WPP shows; what was there to say?

A woman views the World Press Photo of the Year at Caixa Cultural, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spring 2011. Photo by MC2/Flickr Creative Commons License.

A woman views the World Press Photo of the Year at Caixa Cultural, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spring 2011. Photo by MC2/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Of course, the same holds true for the relentlessly banal shows and books that Big Champagne [Magnum Photos] has churned out over the past decade: marginally thematic but otherwise senseless hodge-podges, pointless grab-bags of individual images that treat Big Champagne as little more than a stock agency — exhibitions and publications generated with the majority approval of Big Champagne’s membership, representing a collective specifically founded so that its members could tell stories at length and control their presentation. If we can’t look to such an organization to hold the line, where do I get off asking anyone else to fight the good fight?

I’m not sure if anyone today expects press photography generally, or particular stories told in that form, to change the world; I certainly don’t. At the same time, because we become what we behold, I don’t think that anyone in the field doubts that press photography is a process of perception management, and thus shapes the world in important ways. Much of the decision-making is of course in the hands of management and capital. However, I find it hard to believe that photojournalists and their agencies and their editors are entirely hapless pawns in the hands of witless and/or malevolent but all-powerful publishing cartels. So it seems to me that if writers can challenge the publishing industry and win, as we’ve just done in the States [here I was referring to the then-recent Tasini v. New York Times case], photographers can do the same thing, and perhaps aren’t taking up that gauntlet often enough.

And it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to me to propose that you consider changing what it certainly is within your scope to affect: the way that World Press Photo presents the results of its annual awards to the public, and creates its publication of record thereof.

The 2011 World Press Photo traveling exhibit on display at Caixa Cultural, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spring 2011. Photo by MC2/Flickr Creative Commons License.

The 2011 World Press Photo traveling exhibit on display at Caixa Cultural, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spring 2011. Photo by MC2/Flickr Creative Commons License.

I realize that many people have sweated, risked life and limb, in some cases even died to make these images; and others, present today and absent, have gone to great lengths and taken other risks to get them into print and on the public record. Nothing I’ve said comes from anything but the deepest respect for those commitments; and none of these comments is meant to tarnish in the slightest the well-earned peer recognition of individual achievement that the awards themselves represent.

What I’m saying is that I don’t think that those of you involved with the WPP Awards project do yourselves and your field full justice with these exhibitions and publications. I don’t think you honor yourselves appropriately with them. I think you see them from your insider’s perspective, your knowledge of the work and professional lives of the photographers and picture editors involved and the agencies and publications that sponsor and disseminate their work. You peruse it as an annual family album of your professional sphere, in other words. And this blinds you to the way that the presentation speaks to the outside world, to the average intelligent viewer who comes to these exhibitions and their catalogues and finds in each and every one an incoherent jumble with no clearly stated premises for the selection thereof.

(First of two parts.)

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8 comments to Whither World Press Photo? (1)

  • Very well written. I wish that I could say that I disagree (It’s my nature) but I have found these shows to be boring and have long since stopped going or buying the catalog. I do support the hard work, sweat and dissapointment that many photojournalist experience in today’s marketplace, and every year there will be a new group of photographers and I will support them as well. I do find the work that interest me most, is of a multi-media based platform.

  • The problem with any competition or award is that photographers understandably want to win them.

    They study the different competition rules and conditions assiduously. They examine past galleries for clues to what the judges like have liked in the past. They attempt to find out who the judges are and spend hours on the internet examining their work. Quite often, they have been a judge for their own organisations. Many of them are insecure, and often, ill informed.

    The current system perpetuates the problem.

    Any attempt to think outside the circle is fraught with danger. If an image is radically different, it is often deemed to be inappropriate and discarded. So photographers, wanting to win these competitions, stay safe and create clones of what was declared a winner on the previous year.

    The problem I believe, could be solved by not using only photographers as judges. Perhaps a percentage of the judges could sourced from a different field of the arts. Who says a sculptor can’t have an opinion on a photograph, any more than a photographer can’t have an opinion of a piece of music?

    Change the judges, and you will change the result.

    • What you say certainly holds true for the usual photo contest where anyone from amateurs on up can send in 5 slides and $35. World Press Photo doesn’t fit that model, in that (a) there is no entry fee; (b) entries are restricted — only “professional photographers, their representatives and publications for which work has been produced are eligible to enter photographs and series of photographs”; and (c) the judging is done anonymously: the chair of the jury is announced (it’s David Friend for 2012) but the other jurors are not. You’ll find a thorough description of the jurying process here.

      Generally, the submissions comprise already-published photo essays, or single-image extracts therefrom. It’s a peer-recognition system, which is why — unlike those $35 shows — the awards carry weight in the field of documentary, photojournalism, and press photography. The photographers, agencies, and editors who submit work are certainly aware of what their professional field considers relevant, but they’re not making pictures for the contest in order to please the juries thereof.

      As for substituting sculptors or painters for the jurors . . . since peer recognition functions as the premise here, that wouldn’t make much sense.

  • Hi Mr Coleman!

    In my experience, there is very little difference between the attitudes of entrants who are professionals or amateurs in these competitions – this certainly applies to APPA (Australian Proffessinal Photographers Awards). APPA is a once a year industry award open only to professional photographers and assistants working full time in the profession).

    Incidentally, I doubt that many entries to APPA are produced specifically for the awards. The entry fees are exorbitant (in the vicinity of $400 for four entries) and this usually eliminates casual entrants. However, the images are, like any competition, carefully selected to fit into what the photographer ‘thinks’ the panel of judges will like.

    I stand by my suggestion that people from other practicing artists would make sound judges.

    Photographers are an obsessive bunch! Sometimes this causes a block to seeing outside the circle. Often an outsider can see through the chaff that’s blocking the view.

    Most modern-day photo competitions that I have witnessed recently are over concerned with technique at the expense of content. I have always believed that a great photograph has less to do with depth of field than it does with depth of feeling.

    I wonder, for example, if great photographs like Capa’s Normandy landings, Hardy’s Korean War images, and others would receive the same accolades if presented fresh today. Yet these images have stood the test of time and entered the public consciousness – judged and remembered by the general public and passed into history’s archive. Indeed, when I think about it, nearly all memorable press images are technically a bit on the wobbly side! The modern day equivalents I see displayed in the Worlk Press Awards are all a bit ‘samey’ (if there is such a word!)

    Perhaps photographers should take a step backwards and concentrate more on their philosophy towards photography, and less on whether their images will be judged favourably by their peers.

    Just a thought!

    • As a matter of policy, I recuse myself from judging any photo contests. However, as someone who has applied for assorted grants, I have in each case considered the range of projects that I’d like to pursue and selected the ones I thought the selection committee would most likely find of interest. I have judged some awards for photo books, and for writing on photography, and assume that those who entered did the same. I don’t see anything unusual, inappropriate, or even sly about that, and don’t agree with your implication that there’s something wrong with making one’s entries or proposals suitable to the situation.

      If I were to enter one of my essays into an awards process for literary works in general, I’d have no problem with a jury that included poets, playwrights, and novelists. If I submitted one (as I have) to an award competition for critical writing on photography, I’d find it quite odd if the judge turned out to be a short-story writer, even a renowned one. Just as, I suspect, sculptors who submitted work to a sculpture competition would think it weird, and perhaps inappropriate, to have the final decision made by a painter. In which case, I’d assume they’d try to figure out to which of their works a painter might respond.

  • Hi Again, Well, I guess we will have to agree to disagree! Incidentally, re: (Quote): “… implication that there’s something wrong with making one’s entries or proposals suitable to the situation.” I wasn’t implying anything was inappropriate or wrong – just that everyone (including me) does it! And perhaps if we all concentrated on making great images instead of trying to win award, we might win more awards!

    Ho hum…

    • I seriously doubt that, when working on their projects and assignments, documentary photographers and photojournalists give much thought to whether their results will please the judges at WPP or any other such panel. If they’re concerned with the opinions of anyone beyond themselves and their peers, it’s their editors and publishers, those who enable them to distribute their work.

      That system does have a homogenizing effect, which I’m trying to get at in this post and the one to follow.

  • Colleen M. Thornton

    Very Interesting.

    Back in 1980, on my first honeymoon in Paris, my photographer husband and I went to see an annual photojournalist exhibition at the Petit Palais. In that show were photos that had never been published in the US….and were so shocking and awful in the full context of their meaning that I had to assume that governments had intervened to prevent their dissemination.

    These were graphic, close-up images of the charred bodies of the US soldiers (in situ) that had died in the crash and burning of their helicopters in the desert while trying to rescue the hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran. This was the last straw in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the result of fuel line filters being missing from the helicopters. Nobody has fully explained this tragedy, nor has the American public seen the images of the horrific aftermath. But the FRENCH DID!!!!!!

    Maybe the output of photojournalism is not so much a diminishment of professional practice or intellectual ennui, but a stealthy and steady increase of external control and surreptitious censorship. Hence the phony-baloney business of ’embedding’ reporters in Iraq by the Bush adminstration. The powers-that-be have successfully endeavored to prevent the visceral, visual display of truth-telling that marked the Vietnam War. It’s no wonder that photojournalism has devolved into stock photography.

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