Book review: World Press Photo 2021
by Allan LEONARD
26 June 2021
World Press Photo 2021 is a book compilation of finalists of its annual competition. Entries are submitted by professional visual journalists. There were nine juries across the photo and digital storytelling contests.
For the 2021 contest, general jury chair, Nayantara Gurury Kakshapati, wrote about the unprecedented year that 2020 was, reflecting on the community responses to the pandemic as well as other crises and photographers’ “exemplary commitment to visual journalism”.
Kakshapati also mentioned how the images they reviewed prompted questions on the ethics of photojournalism and the politics of representation: “We were constantly reminding ourselves of the need and the responsibility to challenge the stereotypes that we grapple within in mainstream media, and the need to create room for diverse and plural accounts of issues, communities and geographies.”
This topic was elaborated by Azu Nwagbogu (Director of African Artists’ Foundation), who began his essay with the assertion that “photography has long purported to be evidence of and for truth”, but that “today, more than ever, we see photography as an agent for divisiveness, fake news and alternative facts”.
However, images have been manipulated much during the long history of photography. Rather, the issue of trust has been brought back to the fore. Professional photojournalists are held accountable to a standard of ethics and practice. For example, the images they make must retain original camera metadata, to audit any post processing. With the advent of social media, anyone can upload images and distribute them globally within seconds.
How then does a professional photojournalist distinguish their work from a citizen photojournalist? Nwagbogu suggests that it is by how the stories are told — “its nuances, layers, intrigues, and key drivers”. Just as in text-based news stories, he argues that the citizen photojournalist who publishes “whatever they wish … has nothing to do with veracity or good reporting”.
This prompts a question of today’s audiences — who has gained or lost an appreciation of what could be called “good photojournalism”? Jourmana El Zein Khoury (Executive Director, World Press Photo) in the book preface underlined the value of “furthering our understanding of each other”, through the exchange of worldviews told through the publications’ visual stories.
In many ways, the introspection in these essays reflects the reported current crisis of trust in media, along with an apparent flux of social cohesion. A larger contest is whether good photojournalism will reach a critical mass of a globally diverse audience or be beset by a postmodern backlash of cultural exceptionalism and fleeting attention spans and indifference, or even rejection, of complexity.
In terms of visual storytelling, some of the final images convey messages better than others.
Among the single images were responses to the pandemic. “The First Embrace” by Mads Nissen (video) shows a nurse hugging an 85-year-old care home resident, through a protective plastic curtain. As jury member Kevin Wylie stated: “This iconic image of COVID-19 memorializes the most extraordinary moment of our lives, everywhere. I read vulnerability, loved ones, loss and separation, demise, but, importantly, also survival — all rolled into one graphic image.”
Likewise, “California Sea Lion Plays with Mask” by Ralph Pace shows an interplay among biology (COVID-19), man (manufactured protection products), and pollution (litter). This image reminds us of another crisis — of how human behaviour is affecting the natural world we live in.
“The Human Cost of COVID-19” by Joshua Irwandi shows a dead body completely wrapped in plastic. Even without the assumed context of the pandemic, it is an arresting image. It is also an poignant illustration of the lack of knowledge at the start of the pandemic, about the disease and how to deal with it, among the living and the dead.
Another powerful, related image is within the stories section (sets of series of images). In “COVID-19 Pandemic in France”, there is an image of COVID-19 patients in a condition of intensive care, being transported in a specially converted train to other hospitals. It shows how much we adapted our resources to address the emergency at hand.
The stories section contained stronger narratives and better represented the diversity of worldviews that the contest strived for. By definition, telling stories through a series of images requires more visual literacy skills, beyond capturing a decisive moment to presenting nuances and greater context.
“Sakhawood” visually tells the story of a group of people who live in northeast Russia and how they use art, particularly filmmaking, to showcase and preserve their culture. Beyond aesthetic brilliance, Alexey Vasilyev also succeeds in generating interest in that community’s world. This is one of many excellent examples in this section of the book, making it a rich publication for discovery and learning.
Meanwhile, the section on digital storytelling comes across as a new concept that is finding its way. This is not a criticism of the nine deserved finalists. But there is a lack of coherence on what “digital storytelling” is meant to be. It is not obvious that the entries are “based purely on user-generated content” with “no original photos or videos”. The entries represent traditional film documentary, video testimonials, and computer aided media, with full credits to directors, cinematographers, producers, musicians, etc.
Positively, if one focuses on the use of imagery, there are moments of inspiration within this section — for example, the spoken and written words of a widower over images made by photographer Gang Ding.
It will be interesting to see how this genre of “digital storytelling” develops as a discipline and as recognised by World Press Photo. How will it be distinctive from the well established field of audio-visual documentary?
The self-recognition by the contest organisers to think more critically about ensuring a greater diversity of perspectives — externally through quality submissions and internally through jury panel selection — is positively reflected in the 2021 volume. Let’s hope it reaches a large, appreciative audience.