Why Give Prizes?
The World Press Photo’s contest for Photograph of the Year
For 60 years, World Press Photo has presided an annual contest to reward the best Photographs of the Year according to “the highest standards in photojournalism.” This contest has been “not only a record of more than half a century of human history, but a showcase of successive styles in visual storytelling.” As in previous years, entrants competed for a 10,000-euro prize, a selection of camera equipment, and a paid trip to attend the World Press Photo Festival in Amsterdam. This year there were eight competing categories: “Contemporary Issues,” “Daily Life,” “General News,” “Long-Term Projects,” “Nature,” “People,” “Sports,” and “Sport News.”
The award for The World Press Photo of the Year was granted to the photographer “whose visual creativity and skills made a picture that captures or represents an event or issue of great journalistic importance in the last year.” This year was not the exception: the winner in 2017 was an image by Turkish photographer, Burhan Ozbilici, representing Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş holding a gun after having assassinated Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art exhibition in Ankara.
Regardless of the seriousness of this event, and the undeniable skill of Ozbilici to have captured an image of this caliber on the spur of the moment, there are certain ethical issues that I would like to address about the existence of a photojournalism contest in which photographers around the world compete to acquire a winning prize along with public recognition.
My biggest concern with a photojournalism contest is that I do not see the point of it. Why should a photograph, which is already valuable for what it means — socially, historically and politically — be selected above others to be endorsed by a tribune of “experts”? Second of all, it makes me wonder what exactly is being recognized: is it the act of photographing itself (as an act of courage), or is it the photograph that has value for its content? If, in the end, the award was given to the photographer, does this suggest that the contest values skill over subject?
Perhaps I should state already that I have no problems with photojournalism as a genre, as long as its intention is not to create massive attraction to unpleasant events. Yet, from my perspective, the whole idea of a contest is to create public attention, to literally judge, human tragedy or pain. This is why, in my opinion, photojournalism contests should not exist at all.
That being said, I do not mean to criticize Ozbilici or to minimize his work. In fact, from the moment I saw his photograph, I could not but be completely impressed by it. Still, once again, what I cannot deal with is the fact that his, or any of this type of image, is critiqued and rewarded by judges. Because if it is not enough that these images were taken but these also need to be judged, which should be the criteria to select the winners? What should qualify as a “valuable” image and what should not? Do the judges even question if it is ethical to be critical about some of these photographs?
I wonder, in this case, what could have been the criteria for selecting Ozbilici’s as “Photograph of the Year,” considering that the image of Karlov’s murder comes from a very different context than many of the photographs that were also competing: for instance, one competitor was the photograph of Usain Bolt running the 100-meter semi-final sprint at the 2016 Olympics. In spite of these photographs being classified into different categories, I have trouble understanding how an image of a murder could be competing against that of a smiling athlete.
In the end, however, there had to be a winner, regardless of the content. Because would it be a contest without a winner?
This year, the contest “drew entries from around the world: 5,034 photographers from 125 countries submitted 80,408 images. The jury gave prizes in eight categories to 45 photographers from 25 countries.” According to Mary F. Calvert, member of the jury, this decision was extremely difficult, but in the end, the award was given to an “explosive image that really spoke to the hatred of our times.”
In words of jury member, Tanya Habjouqa:
“It was a very intense, sometimes brutal, discussion—sometimes even emotional—but I feel proud. I think we were brave in our decision. We were bold. I think the selection is definitely going to push forward a debate and I think it is a debate that is essential to have.”
Why, indeed, they were very brave. But Habjouqa suggests that the difficulty of actually taking the photograph is as important as its aesthetics. Indeed, after having shared my reaction to this contest, a friend of mine also brought up Ozbilici’s ability to capture an image within such a dangerous environment, up to the point of having risked his own life. I had not considered that fact, and I understand it, I really do. I recognize his audacity and the value of his contribution to contemporary photojournalism.
Yet many courageous people never win a prize. I still struggle with the fact that he was given an award for being “in the right place at the right time,” and for capturing an image that henceforth will be remembered for its “accurate, fair, and visually compelling insights about our world.”
It is true that a photograph can capture many forms of courage. In his book, Images in Spite of All, Georges Didi-Huberman describes the significance of photography as a political response to crimes against humanity, particularly those committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. The photographs Huberman discusses were clandestinely captured by Jewish prisoners inside a concentration camp. These images are blurry and are not supposed to portray “the facts” about a specific situation, but should be understood as pure gesture. Their intention is to manifest and convey an instant of terror, to describe the indescribable and imagine the unimaginable. Once the victims were deprived of everything, photography arrived as a possibility for capturing a moment of truth, to reveal the feel of a crime scene, and to rip out an image from a space that was about to disappear.
Needless to say, neither the victims nor the images that were taken that day received any compensation or prize. In this case, the act of photographing was valuable on its own because it captured one among many of the horrifying actions committed by the Nazis in the concentration camps. There was no possibility of rewarding those prisoners for their resistance to terror. Once taken, these images were there for us to recognize; and the courage of those people, who trembled behind the walls to reveal an instant of their suffering to the world, was certainly enough.
Yet, what is it about Western societies and their constant need to become “the best” in everything? Was it not relevant enough that Ozbilici was “in the right place at the right time,” in the sense that he captured the seriousness of a political conflict of our time? Was it really necessary to pat him on the shoulder (metaphorically speaking) and applaud him in the end for a “job well done?”
Photojournalists play an important role in denouncing social and political injustice. As Susan Sontag states, “there are multiple uses for the countless opportunities that modern life provides to look –from a distance, through photography– at the pain of others. The photographs of an atrocity could produce opposed reactions. A call for peace. A scream of vengeance, or simply, the confused conscience…that terrible things occur.”
However, my concern is that we have also become passive spectators of catastrophe, and that photojournalism plays a role in normalizing this stance. In fact, as the contest site states: “The World Press Photo of the Year 1975, showing a woman hurled off a collapsing fire escape, refueled the ongoing debate in photojournalism about whether or not it is morally justified to publish pictures of people who are about to die.”
Apparently, however, imminent death does not always create this kind of debate on the jury. Only a decade later Alon Reininger won a prize for portraying a dying man: “In 1986, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which had been spreading quickly around the world since the late 1970s, was given a face: that of Kenneth Meeks. Alon Reininger’s haunting portrait of Meeks, dying of AIDS, his skin marked by lesions, was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year 1986.”
To what extent did showcasing Meeks’ body respect, in any way, the concern that it was probably “not such a good idea” to represent an almost dying organism? To what extent have these series of “demonstrations” actually motivated social and political action beyond acts of representation and reaction? Furthermore, if photojournalism contests are being guided by an elite of “leading photojournalism professionals,” whose intention is to judge and “to award the photography of issues and events, rather than the events and issues themselves,” to what extent will people eventually recall these matters because they were awarded “Photographs of the Year,” and not because of their social significance and magnitude?
I would have understood the significance of this photograph, and the act of photographing itself, better if they had not been selected to become a part of this (or any other) contest; if this photograph had been treated more self-consciously, in order to be preserved as a historic testimony; if this image had not travelled all around the media knowing that, nowadays, “digital technologies and the spread of the internet have transformed how we produce and consume stories.” Lastly, I would have definitely understood their significance if the intention of photographing this conflict had taken a different direction: that of denouncing instead of announcing; that of inducing political activism instead of offering awards to its beneficiaries; that of promoting justice instead of commercializing tragedy.
Mariana Flores Lizaola is a graduate student in the Critical Publishing and Creative Journalism program at the New School for Social Research.
 Georges Didi-Huberman. Imágenes pese a todo: Memoria visual del Holocausto. Paidós Ibérica, 2004.
 Susan Sontag. Ante el dolor de los demás. Círculo de Lectores: Barcelona, 2003, 15. Translation mine.