We look to the camera to explain the world. We entrust our professionals to go out and seek the most import, the most revealing events of the world and encapsulate them in a static frame for our sofa consumption. We do not seek, we wait to be informed. And by doing so, we are the real instruments of photojournalism.
As it has been for the last 60 years, the World Press organisation has gathered some of the most prolific and influential minds of photojournalism today to judge on what they think the best of them might be. As with every year, the result mixes disappointment with frustration, tainted with a wide range of various commentary. Albeit, in 2016, there has been no scandals. Yet.
The winning image is perfectly in the tradition of the World Press past year. A little blurry, overly artistic, deep in drama and related to one of the most significant event of 2015. It’s a statement rather than an explanation, an exercise of style with a current event as a backdrop. As if we were bored with reality and needed the filter of graphic interpretation in order to revisit it. As with Tim Hetherington‘s picture, or even last year’s winner, the mood is more important than the situation.
Unfortunately, there is no lack of images on the plight of the Syrian refugees. As one of the most important event of the XXI century, it is copiously covered by a multitude of photographers, from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of point of views. To pick one photo and say this is the best is a pointless exercise doom to failure. However, there are some important markers that we should not ignore.
One, and probably the most important, is the strong conviction from all photojournalists and everyone else involved in the process, that photojournalism can and should change the world. This image doesn’t cut it. The photograph of the little boy on a Turkish beach, however, does. It might not have any of the artifacts of moody, artsy image, but it has the strongest characteristic of photojournalism: impact. Furthermore, it has been seen and commented upon by millions of people in the world. It is an agent of change, as any photojournalist can only dream their pictures could become. It is nowhere in the crop of rewarded pictures of the 2016 World Press although it was submitted.
Why? And we can only speculate here: Is the popularity of an image detrimental to winning a World Press, akin to the Academy Awards never giving Oscars to blockbusters? Does popularity taint an image with a bad taste of plebeian vulgarity, making it unworthy of an award? Does the World Press jury feel that their role is one of discovery rather than confirmation? Or is it because the image itself is just a plain, simple, in focus, properly exposed frame with no special artifacts?
The obsession of today’s photojournalism that it must have the photographer’s “vision” in order to be good has turned it into an exercise in over-intellectualization, which, in turn, is exhausting its audience. We get it: Some photographers cannot do otherwise than rip apart the rules of composition, framing, exposure and storytelling in order to express themselves. But should they be representative of the totality of the field? Surely, the World Press does not believe so as other category winners do not dwell into this practice.
The issue here is the egg effect. Since photojournalism is a small universe, where everyone knows everyone else, it also tends to feed upon itself. Photojournalists and everyone involved, tend to seek, above and beyond anything else, the reconnaissance of their peers. A compliment from a peer, being another photographer or a photo editor is in order of magnitude worth more than any other rewards, including an audience recognition. So, in order to get that so desperately sought after accolade, they shoot what they believe will be their ticket to peer validation. Thus, the cycle starts. And the World Press, by repeatedly awarding the same type of images just adds fuel to the rotation.
In order to break the cycle, the World Press needs to let the audience participate, something we have talked about in the past. Along with professional, peer judging, let the worldwide audience of viewers cast their votes. After all, they are the reason all these pictures are taken for. Let the true consumers of photojournalism decide which image had the most impact on their lives. In our world dominated by social media, it would not only be not hard to do, but it is a requirement. After all, people consume photojournalism more frequently on various social media channels than any of the traditional news outlets. There would be no shame in adding a People’s Choice award, easily quantified by the aggregation of million of votes via social media. Then we would truly start to see how close, or far off, are the choices of the professionals vs. their audiences.
The World Press remains one of the most brilliant vehicle for the promotion of photojournalism worldwide and it should never disappear. But like any institution, it needs to evolve and break free of its conservative chains, allowing some refreshing wind of change blow in its midst. Nothing would make this great institution be more relevant in the XXI century than its embracement of the world outside its doors. It could only enrich its standing and it could only benefit photojournalism.
Photo by UnknownNet Photography