When a picture changes the world

World  Press Photo

writer icon Signe Hammeleff     wpp   |   Culture     🕐 30. Apr. 2018

The World Press Photo of the Year (WPP) is one of the most prestigious press photo competitions in the world. Since its establishment in 1955, the photo-journalism award names one photo each year. Chosen for its representation of an issue, situation or event of great journalistic importance.

The winning photo is an encapsulation of the year, but also a demonstration of immense creativity and skill. It never fails to provoke a reaction from the audience. Some photos have been so disturbing, heartwarming or eye-opening, that they have become iconic of their time.

Today most people have access to a good camera or a cellphone with a megapixel camera in it. Everything can be uploaded and shared in a few seconds, and it is common to see pictures from around the world on Instagram or Facebook. Yet WPP is still catching the attention of the masses when the photos are published each year. Despite a world that is changing and becoming more visual day by day, somehow these photos capture the public eye every time. 

Exploring other worlds
Imagine living in a world before smartphones, computers and tablets. The only links to the world around you are the radio and the newspaper. The radio supplies you with information, while the newspaper can go one step further and put a face on it. A photo captures a story and says more than words ever could. Tragedy, catastrophes or greatness, the pictures allow us to explore another world, one that we know exists but do not immediately relate to.

In 1973, Nick Ut took a picture of a Vietnamese girl running from her village. The village was mistakenly bombed with Napalm by South Vietnamese forces. At this time during the Vietnam war, not much of this sort of imagery was reaching the western world. When the world saw the naked, wounded little girl everything changed. Thomas Borberg, Photo Editor in Chief at Danish Magazine Politiken, says of the photo "The war got a face. One face...".

Over a decade later, in 1986, a 12-year-old girl is photographed buried in the devastation of a volcanic eruption. The story behind the photo, that the girl that cannot be helped out but is alive and aware of the danger she is in, is devastating. Borberg says “ It is capturing, and it is heartbreaking – and then it is quiet at the same time”

Political struggle
The most recent WPP winner from 2018, is photographer Roland Schemidt. His photo depicts the burning body of 28-year-old José Víctor Salazar Balza. Balza was running through Caracas after a protest turned violent. The photo vividly depicts the power struggle between the civilians and the government, even though the picture only has one person in it. 

Borberg has looked at the winning photos from 1955 until today. He says of the 2018 winner, “Here is the enemy present and invisible at the same time”. Many of the photos have burned themselves into his mind, despite several years having passed since their publication. Each photo had an effect on the world because it confronted the viewers with an unpleasant reality of the world they were living in at the time.

Following the release of Nick Ut’s 1973 Vietnam photo, the image of running, crying children was what people linked the Vietnam war to thereafter. It gave a whole new perspective on a war that people were familiar with, but could not relate to because of the physical and psychological distance it had from their everyday life. All of sudden, the consequences of war possessed a face. War became human.

Does WPP live for that reason only? To humanise the world around us? According to WPP, the photos have the ability to “[connect] the world to the stories that matter”.  

Stories that matter
A quick scroll through Instagram brings up all kinds of stories being told. People share about their mental illness, weight loss, children and successes, amongst other things. These stories matter too, especially the ones that are relatable and empowering. However, the pictures would probably never be awarded World Press Photo of the Year. At least, not for the way we use Instagram today. 

It would seem that there are different kinds of “stories that matter”. One major difference is that Instagram photos are often personal, centring on the life of the owner of the account. Additionally, they can be edited and even deleted if the owner should so wish. There is not the same diligence on social media when compared to press photos.

The photos posted on social media tend to be tedious depictions of everyday life, as fun as that may be. Press photos meanwhile must capture the eyes of the people. They should provoke emotion and engagement on an entirely different level. Capturing a powerful emotion and relaying it to a still image, one which makes us remember the picture for decades to come. The picture itself has to carry a part of a story, one that demands the viewer’s attention just for merely existing. Unlike Instagram or Facebook photos, WPP winners are not meant to capture our attention for a day or two, but for decades.

Instagram vs Reality
Perhaps it is more about the context in which a picture is exhibited, rather than the picture itself. No one expects to get their convictions shaken by a picture on Instagram, mainly because it is not the tone of the app or its users. A number of articles have been written concerning the false image of everyday lives that users share on their social media pages. A general awareness of this insincerity leads to people not necessarily trusting the source or realness of what they see. This is in stark contrast to what is expected from journalistic photography.

63 years on, World Press Photo still shocks, surprises and amazes people. It provides a window to a world which few of us see every day, and shines the light on chaos in a world obsessed by perfection. When viewing WPP winners, one can no longer escape the inequality of the world. The best photos do not tell us answers about right and wrong, rather they ask difficult questions and demand our attention.

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