World Press Photo: 470,214 Pictures Later

Stephen Mayes, World Press Photo Secretary for six years, gave a widely noted keynote address at this year’s event in Amsterdam. Refreshing and fact driven, I think the address is relevant outside the field of photojournalism, as are his concerns that much of today’s photography emphasizes the romantic over the real, the copied view over the personal vision. If you have the time, I recommend to listen to the audio record of the whole thing, here. Excerpts from his original script, including three out of many photos Stephen took behind the scenes during his tenure, below. JH

[…] I wonder if World Press Photo is peeling away from reflecting the media as it is, and is rather reflecting the media the way we wish it were. Of the 376 images awarded prizes this year, I would be curious to know how many have been published in a paid-for context. Maybe all of them. Maybe. But the overall impression that I’m left with from the 470,214 images that I have seen entered into the contest in the current decade, is that they reflect a form of photojournalism that is now more romantic than functional.

Copyright 2004 Stephen Mayes

[…] The overwhelming impression from the vast volume of images is that photojournalism (as a format for interpreting the world) is trying to be relevant by copying itself rather than by observing the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than at World Press Photo where every year the winners stimulate a slew of copyists (in style and content). It’s easy to understand why when we consider that the last twenty years has seen an explosion in the numbers of professional photojournalists and a collapse of the traditional markets. As more photographers compete for less page space, a lot of work ends up in competitions as the only outlet – and as the largest, World Press Photo gets more than its fair share.

Every year, the jury is astonished by the repetition of subjects and the lack of variety in the coverage. From the infinity of human experience the list of subjects covered by the entrants would fill a single page, and (excluding sports as a specialist area) could be reduced even to three lines:

– The disposed and the powerless
– The exotic
– Anywhere but home (the American election would be one of the exceptions to this rule….)

Copyright 2008 Stephen Mayes

This is the general view, the blurred impression of 470,214 images and of course there are many exceptions. But meanwhile hospitals and the sick (and especially mental hospitals), the afflicted, the poor, the injured are photographed way in excess of their actual numbers. And I have a feeling that there are as many photographers as drug users in the Kabul’s Russian House. As one juror said this year, “90% of the pictures are about 10% of the world.”

– Over represented: commercial sex, suffering black folk, Muslim women in veils, same sex couples kissing, holding hands
– Under represented: middle class, affluent drug users, real sex, personal sex, black culture and expanded vision of black life outside Africa.

[…] What is journalism if it doesn’t inform but merely repeats and affirms what we already know?

– Part client-driven, which is the mirror on the media
– Part a phenomenon of the competition: pictures made for prizes

Interestingly, violence, which is perceived as the cornerstone of World Press Photo is not as heavily represented as people imagine: of the 376 award-winning images in 2009 only 25% [depict] violence/duress, and only 7% actual injury, blood and death.

Maybe the structure of the competition contributes a little to this process. As a category definition “Daily Life” implies a 20th century way of seeing that has been supplanted by “Lifestyle” in the 21st century. The connotations of this vocabulary are subtle but important: in general “Lifestyle” is considered to belong to people like us, and “Daily Life” is considered to belong to other people. But this in no way accounts for the dearth of imagination in how we as a profession represent the world.

Copyright 2009 Stephen Mayes

[It is] important to take innovative risk as well as physical risk. Capa’s famous dictum that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” could be applied in this new context to describe an emotional closeness to ones subjects. By that I do not mean a sentimental display of warmth, but at least a real interest in the subject. The adherence to formulaic representation suggests a lack of connection with what’s truly meaningful to oneself and the impression is that many photojournalists photograph what they think they ought to photograph rather than what actually intrigues them.

[“Romantic, as in] heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” defines photojournalism as represented by the vast majority of the entries. Where is the intimate, the personal and the real?

More coverage of the event in Amsterdam here, further commentary here.

Baghdad Calling

Magnum Nominee Geert van Kesteren just won the Infinity Award for Photojournalim for his book “Baghdad Calling.” From what I hear, the decision is not exactly viewed as uncontroversial… What follows is the take of Stephen Mayes, Director of VII Photo Agency in New York City, both on the book in particular, and on the repercussions of sourcing amateur cell-phone images for photojournalistic purposes in general. JH

Sixteen simple tales of displacement, fear and frustration put a human face on the refugee crisis that has forced four million Iraqis from their homes since the coalition invasion of 2003. Shia, Sunni, Christian and Jewish people, children, parents and partners, workers, professionals and even the son of a senior Saddam General, all are victims of concerted attack and random violence; ordinary lives made extraordinary by unsolicited horrors visited on their houses, since abandoned but not forgotten. And none more powerful than the story that kick-started van Kersteren’s second book on Iraq, the group of doctors forced into exile by the random attack on a colleague, whose brave smile from his hospital bed in Amman, Jordan belied the mortal wounds that took him days after that snapshot was made on a mobile-phone.


It’s a powerful shot [p.162], intimate and direct, made by a friend holding a phone inches from his face at a time of incredible duress. It’s easy to see how this “found” image inspired photographer van Kesteren to abandon his own camera in favour of the compound eye of a hundred Iraqis recording their lives up-close and personal with mobile-phones, documenting what seems most important to them (the State department records 1.4 million cell-phones in Iraq 2005 swelling to 7.1 million in less than three years). The picture of the dying doctor is very specific to the medium: as a personal snapshot it is intimate, immediate and posed to make a statement that is different from the public pose offered to a professional lens. The smile is for family and friends, intended to reassure and to leave a more benign memory than a raw document of pain and dislocation.

So far so good, but not much further. Van Kesteren took the principle of cell-phone documentary and ran with it, enlisting helpers to trawl the blogosphere and research connections for the wealth of self-generated imagery carried in people’s phones. He found and published 140 phone images, wrapped around the written testimonials with minimal text or explanation and in doing so has debunked the popular theory that the intimacy of the personal phone can somehow substitute for professional observation. It is a popular theory, part of the zeitgeist where the “user generated image” is at the interface of modern technology and culture. But just as giving everyone a car makes many drivers but doesn’t make the roads better nor even improve communications, so cell-phone cameras don’t necessarily enrich our understanding of the world.


Of the three defining characteristics of the mobile-phone image, intimacy, immediacy and ubiquity, ubiquity is proven. So is immediacy – these images are all as close as participants can get to the drama of modern Iraq, but intimacy is a fickle quality. Intimacy is by definition very personal, and as such it’s not necessarily transferable; the author’s intent and the viewer’s understanding are hard to connect even in professional imagery and in the egocentric world of the amateur snap where the image means what the snapper says it means, the significance evaporates with distance. Imposing assumed meaning on these random, often abstract images comes dangerously close to sentimentalism.

These 140 cell-phone images infer intimacy without actually sharing much and this assumed closeness does not substitute for real content. What we see is profoundly uninteresting: it seems that people smile for cameras in Iraq just as they do anywhere else. These images don’t inform, nor stimulate curiosity nor fill gaps left by the powerful spoken testimonials. Fully 40% of the images are general street scenes, which although taken beyond the confines of the Green Zone tell us little about life in modern Iraq. One is reminded of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcard collections that manage to make banal situations look banal, but this is hardly a service when applied in such dramatic and critical circumstances. Some of the images reach an almost delightful level of abstraction that lends them a spurious conceptual aura, such as the pixilated blur that a rare caption identifies as “Videostill mortuary” [p.278] or the inky smudge that we are told is how a town looks by night when the electricity is off [p.256]. I am reminded of Colin Powell’s indistinct satellite “evidence” of WMD and I am also reminded that I shouldn’t fall for the illusion again, even when applied in the seductive context of cell-phone authenticity.

The editors raise the subject of authenticity in the upfront texts, saying that many images were rejected because of “the risk of digital editing” and “suspect provenance or propagandistic nature”, thereby bleaching some of the most interesting aspects of the cell-phone genre. If we’re going to truly embrace this vernacular medium we shouldn’t pretend that it substitutes for professional journalism but instead take it for what it is: an expression of what people want to say using whatever tools they can bring to bear.


The unfortunate design exacerbates this dismal representation. The decision to print the amateur images on newsprint is presumably intended to convey the immediacy and veracity of up-close news imagery but actually creates a sense of disposability. The designer has chosen to run each image full-frame across double pages creating two problems: enlarging a picture intended to be seen at three square inches to over a hundred square inches does little to enhance the image, and it also reminds us of the amateur tendency to place the subject in the centre of the frame resulting in the book’s hungry gutter eating many of the key elements.

The end result is interesting as another modern typology demonstrating those subjects that people find most interesting to photograph: street scenes (often from within traveling cars), burned-out cars and celebrations. But what does this tell us about the plight of four million displaced Iraqis? It is a brave experiment and should be respected as that, but it is also reminder of the emperor’s new clothes. Many of us are mesmerized by the cultural presence of the cell-phone and we are hoping to invest value in this new tool of communication, but this theoretical wonder is not yet borne out in its practical application.

Baghdad Calling, Geert van Kesteren, Episode Publishers, 2008.