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March 2008

“Serious and worthy” is a phrase sometimes used mockingly about World Press Photo (WPPh), but to its 23 staff and the thousands of entrants to this most famous of prizes, it is a badge of honour. Mike Stanton caught up with managing director Michiel Munneke who insists that its values are not for changing.

One wall of Michiel Munneke’s spacious office, a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw, is covered with images from previous WPPh competitions. Packed together, they form a kind of mosaic of all that is good and bad about the world since the mid-Fifties, and imploring us to remember and be moved: former Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis in full flow framed alongside a boy-soldier carrying a rifle.

This is photography at its most unflinching and its least trivial. No Paris Hilton on a night out in New York here − and there is never likely to be either. These are images made by people who give their lives to what James Nachtwey recently dubbed “the awareness business”.

Winning entries to this famous competition often reveal something fundamental about the world, and invariably cause debate and controversy. This year’s prize, the 50th awarded, was no exception.

American Spencer Platt’s image of the “young Lebanese”, as they have become known, won the World Press Photo of the Year prize and almost immediately sparked a debate about the nature of image-making and the way it is carried out.

Young, well-dressed people in a sports car driving through a war zone; one appears to be about to take a picture on her mobile phone; another covers her nose with a cloth; yet another gazes blankly out of shot from behind mirrored sunglasses. It sounds like a still from a Hollywood movie. A photographer, catching sight of the red car, spins round, and with no time to focus, and gets off five shots, four of which he can’t use because there was someone in the way.

© Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Spencer Platt’s controversial WPPh-winning image

Some, perhaps sneeringly, have called it a “holiday snap”, but Michiel disagrees. “It is a fresh, modern war photograph,” he says. “People normally expect to see battlefields. This was different. It draws you in and makes you want to spend time looking at it. The fact that it can be read in different ways gives it a certain kind of strength, as does the contrast of the devastation in the background with the fanciness in the foreground.”

The debate over the image didn’t stop there. In the past two years, the subjects of the winning images have been found by journalists and interviewed. A Belgian reporter found the people in Platt’s picture and discovered they were unhappy about being depicted in this way. Although the photo had been published many times in 2006, it was only when it won WPPh that it reached a much greater audience and that its subjects made their feelings known.

“A lot of the fuss came more from the caption on the photo that stated they were “affluent” youngsters,” says Michiel. “So it was less the photo itself. They also felt like victims themselves, accused, almost, of being on some disaster tourism trip.

“It is important that people dig into the background of the images and I do not see this as a criticism of World Press Photo. It is more about where the media is at the moment. It is getting more and more complicated for photographers. If this had been taken in the US or France, perhaps there could have been a lawsuit. Photographers are just trying to do their job and as long it’s honest I don’t have a problem with it.

“If you are a wire photographer, you have to deliver to deadlines. Speed is important and often you don’t always build a relationship with the people you are working on. But if you’re working on a long-term project, like that on the victims of Chernobyl, you work with them for half a year or longer and build up a certain confidence, although the ethics are the same [in both cases].”

The display on Michiel’s wall also prompts the question: “How can anyone decide which is the single best image?” Boosted by the acceptance, for the first time, of submissions via the web, the 2006 competition generated 78,083 entries, submitted by 4,460 professionals from 124 countries. The first winner, in 1955, was chosen from images sent from just 12 countries.

© Mogens von Haven (Denmark)

The first WPPh of the Year winner in 1955: a competitor tumbles off his motorcycle during motorcross world championships.

There are two basic criteria for judging the submissions: technical quality and journalistic relevance. Beyond that, like all such awards, there is no objectivity. But in the end it is always a group decision and in putting together a judging panel, WPPh looks not only for the best-qualified people, but it also tries to ensure a balance of agency representation across the years. In this way, WPPh works hard to protect its neutrality and the authority of its judgments. “We don’t even disclose who voted for which image, or whether there was unanimity, unless the chair of the judges chooses to,” says Michiel.

As well as going to the heart of what it means to be a press photographer, this year’s controversy also reflected the status of the competition itself. “World Press Photo is clearly taken very seriously,” says Michiel. “The amount of exposure that the winners get is enormous and the exhibition of their work goes to around 100 cities worldwide, generating even more publicity.”

This level of exposure also means that people look to WPPh to promote the values of what it means to be a press photographer and sometimes to question the way it works.

Change, like everything else at WPPh, is considered very seriously, and only undertaken when absolutely necessary. It is a competition only open to professionals and WPPh always asks for references and press cards from entrants. But in the past few years, some images, notably those from Abu Graib have come from ‘citizen journalists’. But WPPh has no plans to open the competition up to amateurs, and does not see a threat from these non-professional images.

© Charlie Cole (USA)/Newsweek, USA.

The winning image from 1989 was of a demonstrator confronting a line of People's Liberation Army tanks during Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democratic reform.

“They can exist together, but there will always be a need for those who work on in-depth stories,” says Michiel. “In fact, for the first time this year, the judges were allowed to give a special mention to a non-professional image that had an impact on the press, although this jury decided that there wasn’t such an image this year.”

WPPh strongly supports narrative photography, and he agrees that this way of working is under some pressure, although new technologies have also opened up new opportunities.

“As a photographer these days you can build your own website that can support print and book sales. You have to develop multimedia skills like audio and video. It’s about storytelling and if newspapers and magazines are not very keen on publishing narratives you have to find other ways of getting your message across.

“You also need the skills of a salesman to sell your stories and to establish and maintain a network of people you can work for,” he says. The organisation is not simply about prize giving. Michiel, after joining WPPh straight from university, went on to set up the first educational programmes in 1995 in less developed countries. WPPh is currently active in Columbia, Nigeria, Tanzania, the Philippines, Egypt and Morocco.

The initiatives begin by WPPh deciding which country to work in. It then looks for a partner, such as a university, invests in equipment and recruits the students. It investigates which skills are needed locally and invites a suitable tutor to visit the country. The students are usually set assignments and have the opportunity via an intranet to stay in contact with the tutors. They can upload their images and have tutors and other students from elsewhere in the world comment on their work.

“It’s a kind of virtual community linked through us,” says Michiel. “One partnership set up with an agency in 1998 in Bangladesh led to the agency creating an educational wing. “It’s still going and the people that we taught back then are now taking the classes. It’s a great success story.”

© (Nick) Ut Cong Huynh (USA)/The Associated Press, Vietnam

The winning image in 1972 was this of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (center) fleeing with other children after South Vietnamese planes mistakenly dropped napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians.

Michiel believes that students hoping to be a winner at WPPh should not set out to try to win competitions. “If your work is good, it will be recognised. You should do something that’s part of yourself rather than trying to copy someone else.

“A lot of young photographers think that the only stories are in war zones and disaster areas. A good photojournalist is someone who’s able to tell a story from just around the corner.”

Does Michiel have a favourite WPPh-winning image? He thinks for moment and then says, “this year’s winner”. “Perhaps in other years people looked for images with a direct impact, ones that were easier to read, emotional. [Spencer’s photo] has more layers and there’s a lot to learn from it.”