There was good reason to doubt the new course taken by the (Dutch-based) organization of World Press Photo (WPP), the most important competition in photojournalism in the world. In an urgent need to modernize this photo competition, WPP divided the world into six regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, North and Central America, South America and Southeast Asia and Oceania), with separate juries for their area selecting the first to produce a selection. A senior jury then selected nominations for the most important award: World Press Photo of the Year.
The anxious question was: Does not this regionalization, together with the organization’s desire for greater attention to diversity, indigenous cultures, the consequences of colonization and the climate crisis, lead to a competition in which ideological issues govern and determine the thinking framework of the jury? While this year’s picture should simply be the best, selected for photojournalism, rather than, for example, aroused considerations. The exhibition, which opened last week in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk, was to provide the answer.
The awarding of the top prize to Canadian photographer Amber Bracken was not reassuring. The first photo in the history of WPP Grand Prize winners without visible human presence shows a series of children’s crosses marking 215 anonymous graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. Indigenous children in Catholic schools like this one were forced to ‘assimilate’ into a not too distant past – resulting in psychological, physical and sexual abuse and numerous murders.
Bracken’s picture, made for New York Times, combines compositional beauty and beautifully saturated colors with a touch of kitsch: the rainbow in silhouette against a threatening cloudy sky. Cliché and so not finished critics call shooting a rainbow; The bracken itself points to the symbolic significance: the vanishing point of the arch marks the location of the children’s graves.
While it is refreshing that Bracken ignores unwritten laws, there is still a lot to do with jury selection. The photographer nicely meets WPP’s burning attention to the colonial heritage, but the image lacks the iconic qualities that cut it into our collective memory. It is very daring of the jury to honor such a still image, but it could also have wondered why images showing a person in WPP’s 67-year history have always been rewarded: it is, after all, very much the subject. of identification.
See, for example, Konstantinos Tsakalidis’ photograph of the Greek woman with her face distorted in despair and her hands clasped in front of her chest, against the background of the flames caused by forest fires on her island of Evia. A horror picture of the climate crisis affecting everyone in the stomach area.
However, WPP is more than an expected galleon figure. The exhibition clearly bears traces of the new course. The shift in focus in favor of non-Western topics is a relief (meaning, for example, that the faces of Trump, Proud Boys, and Capitol stormers are featured in only one – otherwise very strong – series by Canadian Louie Palu). There is, for example, the delusional series awarded as History of the Year by Australian Matthew Abbott. He recorded how native forest dwellers in his country saved their (paradise-like) habitat with self-ignited, controlled fires from the destruction of a sea of flames, an ancient traditional form of fire prevention. It is the optimistic counterpart to the dramatic black-and-white series by Brazilian Lalo de Almeida, which for years has followed how the devastation of the Amazon reaches a dystopian climax under President Bolsonaro.
With fewer categories (from 45 in the previous edition to 24 now), WPP offers more room for depth and simply more photos per page. series – single images are rare. The generally unsatisfactory presentation of video productions in the exhibition (which required viewing time by the visitor) has been deleted. This is the choice by which WPP returns to the core of its existence: photography. Apart from the awarding of the main prize, the organization’s current agenda does not stand in the way of the quality of the photograph. The 2021 harvest is undoubtedly phenomenal across the board.
Bram Janssen is the only Dutch winner to have been recognized by WPP in the Stories for Asia category. He made a melancholy series for the AP news agency about a cinema in Kabul that is to deal with the Islamist tyranny of the Taliban that took power in Afghanistan last year. In the semi-darkness of the temporarily closed cinema, Janssen portrayed, among other things, an operator and the director, whose future in the country hostile to women looks even gloomier than that of her male colleagues.
world press photo
65th edition, with the 128 award-winning images.
Until 14/8, New Church, Amsterdam.