It wouldn’t be February without debate and controversy surround the annual World Press Photo awards. In past years, the chattering classes (that includes us at dvafoto) have gone back and forth on the images or techniques given awards, this year questions have been raised about the voting process itself.
Looking through the year’s winners, I thought there wouldn’t be any debate; the categories this year were filled with strong work from many of the year’s major (and soon-to-be-major) news events. John Stanmeyer‘s winning image, one of my favorite pictures of the year, seemed like a subtle choice for the top award. It’s an image that regards marginalized people with a sense of humanity and dignity, rather than using people from the developing world as puppets for pity or handwringing. The subjects, with cell phones aloft, are people with families and histories and futures, trying to communicate in a situation beyond their control. The photo rises above the usual sex, drugs, and war tropes that dominate the major photojournalism contests.
The selection of this image has not escaped controversy. As duckrabbit first pointed out, John Stanmeyer (the winning photographer) and Gary Knight (World Press Photo jury chair) are business partners (full disclosure: I interned at VII in 2005-6). The photojournalism industry is a small one–though that can also be debated, especially if we look outside of the US and western Europe–and it’s inevitable that the judges of these major contests will know or have worked with the photographers whose work wins awards, since both tend to come from the upper echelons of the photojournalism industry. In this case, Knight and Stanmeyer’s ties are very close. In a World Press Photo video discussing the winning image (above), Knight says that he voted the story out of the competition, but the jury kept the image in the running for a single award. Speaking with the New York Times’ Lens Blog, Knight said that he tried to recuse himself from the jury when the image was considered, but that contest regulations did not allow that. Because of this, we must rely on trust that the award was reached in a fair manner. Even the appearance of unfairness in the judging process, however, undermines the award. If nothing else, there is now a strong reason for World Press Photo to amend their the contest rules and create a procedure for dealing with apparent conflicts of interest in the judging. Ironically, it was in a press release announcing Knight as jury chair that World Press Photo said they would alter the rules to increase transparency for examining digital files for ethical violations after the controversy over Paul Hansen’s winning image last year.
I’m not sure that Stanmeyer’s and Knights close ties are the largest issue here. Knight has said that looking at the images entered in the contest, the industry lacks resources to cover the year’s important issues, though he says that is not the case with the winning images. Furthermore, 8% of images chosen for the final round of judging had to be thrown out due to ethics violations. And only 14% of entrants to the contest were women (that number is under “Data on Entries” in David Campbell’s post as secretary of the jury). We’ve written before about sexism and gender bias in the photography industry, but this is a stark statistic.
By the way, here is a video of Gary Knight talking about some of the other winning entries:
There have been a number of responses to the awards and analyses posted online. Here are a few that I found most interesting (some linked above):
- World Press Jury secretary David Campbell’s World Press Photo 2014 contest: Reflections from the Secretary’s seat
- BagNewsNotes’ Thoughts on John Stanmeyer’s 2014 World Press Winning Photo
- Conscientious Redux’s 57th World Press Photo of the Year – A Few Thoughts
- Alessia Glaviano’s reflections as a member of the World Press Photo People category jury.
- Gary Knight’s conversation with the British Journal of Photography, in which he laments that the awards are dominated by a few large photo institutions.
- Susie Linfield’s thoughts that the awards this year reflect dignity and hope
- duckrabbit’s World Press Photo: great pics and the usual incest
- Paul Melcher’s Photojournalism is not a Competition
- Lens’ The World’s Best (Unaltered) Photos
- World Press Photo win is ‘bittersweet’, says John Tlumacki of his Boston Marathon bombing image
- Martijn Kleppe’s collection of discussion relating to World Press Photo 2013, for these links and more