Do Photojournalism Contests Glamorize Pain and Suffering?

by admin February 17, 2018 at 3:27 am

In a break from the past, World Press Photo (WPP) released the short list of finalists in advance of naming the winners to their annual contest – arguably the most prestigious in all of photojournalism. The photos are remarkable for their composition, exposure, and intimacy. But judging by the subject matter one might surmise that we’re living in a hellish dystopia, or that the jury believes pain and suffering is the most valid form of photojournalism.

A more nuanced look at all the finalists reveals a broader range of subject matter, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the Photo of the Year candidates have an obvious and often despair-laden quality to them (as do many photojournalism contests).

The tendency to value these types of scenes and subject matter made the 2014 selection of John Stanmeyer’s photo all the more startling. In contrast to most years, Stanmeyer’s photo of migrants in Djibouti trying to catch cheaper cell signals from neighboring Somalia depicted an everyday struggle of strangers in a strange land without relying on bloodshed or violence.

Photo by John Stanmeyer

This matters because awarding the industry’s top prize to fire and brimstone images flies in the face of the actual trend of improving conditions around the world (if Bill Gates and Steven Pinker are to be believed).

Most contests provide very little guidance to their juries, which tend to rotate annually. Consistency or a longitudinal vision for a contest’s raison d’être are typically not a part of a jury’s purview. Juries are therefore likely to conform to their “brand perception” of a given contest.