World Press Photo

Photo Fair Review

by Anne Wilkes Tucker
with photographer Will Michels

Every April in Amsterdam, World Press Photo announces the winners of holds a contest to determine the best news picture of the previous year. Though the judging often stirs controversy, the legacy of the competition is impressive. Among the past images images whose power continues to sustain interest long after any "newsworthy" aspects, many were first recognized by the World Press, including Yasushi Nagao's photograph of the assassination of the Japanese Socialist Party Chairman, Hector Rondon Lovera's photograph of a Navy chaplain braving gunfire to aid a mortally-wounded soldier, and Nick Ut's photograph of children running from a napalm attack in Vietnam.

Chosen from 80,536 images submitted from 125 different countries, the World Press Photo of the Year for 2007 was Vanity Fair contributor Tim Hetherington's photograph of a soldier in Afghanistan sinking onto an embankment in his bunker after a deadly day of combat against militant Islam soldiers. In the dim, somber light of the bunker, the soldier's expression is shock, edhis posture reveals one exhaustion. Will the image last as a picture past the emotions that led to its selection? I have looked at thousands of photographs relating to war in the last two years, and very few deal with that moment after battle when the day's violence come to consciousness. During the fight, a soldier thinks only of his and his companions' survival while doing their jobs. It is only later that the danger and the horrors seep in, and Hetherington conveys this moment.

In addition to the selection of the Photo of the Year, the jury of editors and photographers awarded prizes to 59 other photographers from 23 nations in 10 different categories, including people in the news, sports, contemporary issues, daily life, arts and entertainment, and nature. During the weekend and before the awards ceremony on the last evening of the World Press Photo weekend in Amsterdam, each winner presents their work to an audience that includes not only their peers and colleagues, but also some of the most notable newspaper and magazine editors, news agency directors, publishers, and journalists.

This year World Press Photo initiated a project called "New Stories" as part of its ongoing commitment to training new generations of photographers around the globe. The program gives formal photography training to young, underprivileged photographers from what they deemed the outside "majority world", that is, countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. As with World Press Photo's Joop Swart master class (initiated in 1994), the emphasis is on developing "human stories," often ones of courage. Students from the Swart class have gone on to win World Press awards in later years and it is hoped that the new program will also reap strong results.

Discussions at the awards weekend highlighted the rise of the "citizen journalist," and how the distribution of photographs by citizens is made possible and encouraged by the internet. Of concern for photographers in underdeveloped countries was the fact that slow connections inhibit poorer countries from uploading their work or from receiving images from other nations. Another problem raised in developing the skills of young photographers in "New Stories" was the fact of no historical photographic traditions by photographers from their own countries. Thus photography classes there must use examples of photographs from Western countries that might be used in the classes, featuring lives and issues very different from the realities of the students. The students are encouraged to visualize their own communities, without the exotic slant often imposed by visiting photographers, but with the knowledge of a citizen. World Press instructors are considering how they can help encourage indigenous aesthetics.

There were a handful of non-news attendees such as myself and my colleague, photographer Will Michels. We were there to look at the exhibitions and to interview as many of the war photographers as we could. We asked many of the same questions of each photojournalist, including: Did you ever think you were going to die? Having survived, did you photograph the next day? To the latter two questions, the answers were always "yes" and "yes." They also acknowledged that one gets more careful as one manages to grow older, but that they realized they might outgrow their luck some day.

Among those interviewed on this trip was Balazs Gardi, a Hungarian photographer who won first place in General News Singles for a photograph made in Afghanistan of a boy who received shrapnel wounds from a rocket during a US air strike. Gardi also won first prize in the General New Stories category for capturing strife in the same region - the Korengal Valley - where villagers have fought off outside attempts from all sides of the conflict to control them. Fighting in the valley is constant; it is one of the deadliest zones of conflict.

Gardi has covered the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001; the award-winning pictures were made on his third trip to the Valley. Like many of the photographers we interviewed in Amsterdam, Gardi earns money doing corporate work so that he can return to the war zones to work without an assignment from a specific magazine. And, like the other photographers, Gardi acknowledged the dangers of his work. He spoke of skills acquired, such as being able to distinguish types of guns by the sounds of gunfire and learning to evaluate the risks of one's position based on the capacity of the guns. He also recognized that when one spends time with a specific military unit, it is impossible to remain neutral, though he does try to be objective. "We need to understand," he said, "what is happening, why it is happening, and how people are coping, both the soldiers and citizens."

Gardi is not alone in his commitment to the issues. A constant in our interviews was that the photographers were exceptionally well-informed about the situations they were covering. They cited the issues on both sides of each conflict, roots of the conflicts, the names of leaders and their minions, and what they saw as probable future events. Their responsibilities were to capture single images and perceive stories that could convey aspects of what they understood in visual terms. Listening to them, seeing their pictures, and hearing the passion in their voices for what they do, I could only be grateful that, despite the dangers, they were there to bring us stories and information that would otherwise not get to us.