Friday, October 14, 2005

At 50 Years, World Press Photo Looks Back And Ahead

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Published: October 13, 2005 7:17 PM ET

AMSTERDAM (PDN ) David Burnett, Nick Ut, Larry Towell, Co Rentmeester, Eric Refner, Georges Merillon, and Anthony Suau were among the more than two-dozen World Press Photo winners who stood together and received a standing ovation in Amsterdam Saturday night. The gathering of past winners of the World Press Photo of the Year capped a two-day conference in Amsterdam to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the international photo competition.

Since 1955, when a group of Dutch press photographers decided to open their photo contest to foreign photographers and hold a public exhibition of the winners, the non-profit World Press Photo competition has expanded to include a traveling exhibition, an annual master class, and a series of seminars to foster free and objective photojournalism around the globe.

On Oct. 7 and 8, past World Press Photo winners, jurors, and organizers gathered for speeches and a panel discussion that grappled with the future of photojournalism at a time of falling newspaper readership, limited space for long-form documentary work in magazines, and increased competition from television news crews and amateur bystanders using cell phones or low-resolution digital cameras and the Internet to deliver news images to the media world wide.

"I fear that many magazines won't survive because they will have lost their purpose," said Christian Caujolle, head of the French photo agency Agence Vu and a member of World Press Photo's international advisory board, during a panel made up of former contest judges and winners.

Caujolle said photo editors and photographers should not try to compete with television or the Internet on breaking news fast, but should strive to provide more depth and analysis. Caujolle, a former photo editor for La Liberation in Paris, said, "If I saw tomorrow on the front page of my favorite newspaper a photo that had appeared 12 hours earlier on television, it would increase my doubts" about the goal of print publications.

Danish photographer Eric Refner noted however, "Taking strong pictures takes time. It's difficult to find economic support to do the job I really love." In Denmark, many photojournalists have turned to shooting advertising or fashion, he said, "because they can't take the chance of spending two weeks on a story without [payment] guarantees."

The panelists noted that there is strong public interest in serious documentary photography that is not currently being served by magazines or newspapers. American-born photographer Anthony Suau noted, for example, that his photo essay "Fear This," about the divisions in U.S. society after the invasion of Iraq, has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors since it appeared on

Caujolle says this year, close to 30% of Agence Vu's income will come from its gallery. "When I see how many prints and books are sold, I really become frustrated with publishers" who don't think there's a market for photojournalism.

During the two-day conference, speakers and panelists often referred to the growing use of cell phone images to illustrate news stories -- from the London subway bombing to the tsunami -- despite their poor quality. "These are artifacts, not photographs," said Caujolle, echoing the common sentiment among the photo professionals at the gathering.

In the most widely discussed program, however, Shahidul Alam, founder of the Drik photo agency in Bangladesh, took a different view of "citizen journalism." To Alam, expanding access to the Internet and the tools of picture making can empower individuals often portrayed in the press as anonymous masses to tell their own stories to the world.

During the late 1980s, Alam was one of many journalists documenting the political demonstrations to drive the country's military dictatorship from power. With the Bengla press controlled by the state, photographers tried get their images published overseas, but he says, "these photos didn't sell. Trying to bring down a military dictatorship in Bangladesh wasn't sexy."

Once the dictator was forced out of office in 1990, he organized a photo exhibition that drew hundreds of thousands of visitors eager to see photos of their political struggles. That year, Bangladesh suffered one of the worst cyclones in its history, and suddenly hundreds of foreign press descended on the country, again portraying local citizens as victims of circumstance.

Alam, who helped establish e-mail and the first electronic bulletin board in his country, believes the mainstream media, which has been published by and for what he called a "literate elite," can be enriched by encouraging greater interactivity.

At the closing ceremony on Saturday evening, more testimony to the power of the still image came from Dr. Jan Pronk, U.N. Special Representative to the Sudan. Pronk said that in the Darfur region, militia have for years carried out acts of genocide without international outcry, he says, because there have been no photographers there. He encouraged photographers not only to serve as witnesses, but also to use their cameras to fight for the rights of the victims. "Objectivity," Pronk said, "is indifference."

Holly Stuart Hughes ( is editor of Photo District News, a sister publication of E&P.

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