The nature of the profession means that even the best images photojournalists produce are generally confined to a small box in a field of newspaper text or, at best, a magazine or Web page. We're used to viewing "artistic" photographs in large scale at a gallery or museum, but the work of the world's press shooters is rarely afforded the same privileged display.
That's one of the most compelling reasons to take in the annual World Press Photo Exhibition, now in its 53rd year and coming to New York and Ottawa in August, and Mexico City, Montreal, Stuttgart, Prague, Bogota, Kyoto, Naples, Budapest and Istanbul, among other cities, in September and October. Not only do the images, both individual snapshots and series, provide a valuable window into last year's major news stories and less-publicized cultural trends, they testify to the craft, dedication and increasing technical application of leading photojournalists. Seeing their pictures blown up to museum size, presented on large panels at touching distance, confirms that the best journalistic photographers can more than hold their own beyond the limits of a small printed page.
Since its founding in 1955, the Amsterdam-based nonprofit World Press Photo organization has given awards for and displayed some of the most iconic images in modern journalism: A naked girl runs from the flames after a napalm bombing in Vietnam; a solitary protester blocks the path of tanks heading toward Tiananmen Square. This year, the panel of expert judges examined more than 100,000 images submitted by close to 6,000 photographers representing 128 different countries.
In This Issue
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The jury awarded prizes in 10 different categories — ranging from spot news to sports to nature — to more than 60 photographers whose work appeared in the world's leading publications and news services. The exhibit, which will visit 100 cities around the world this year, presents all of those award-winning snapshots in impressive style, with thorough caption and publication information, along with an intuitive multimedia area that lets visitors pore over other nominated photos.
The exhibition opened in Amsterdam this spring, held in the city's oldest church (consecrated in 1306), which now straddles a border of the famed red-light district. The location proved fitting for the images on display, whose subject matter veers from death in the streets to life beneath the waves. At first it was hard to know where to turn — many of the photographs, especially in full size, are gruesome, gory. A picture by the Chilean photographer Carlos Villalon shows a very young man dead in a pool of his own blood, a victim of the Colombian drug wars. The vivid red of the copious blood makes for difficult viewing, but a close-up examination reveals a poignant, painful detail. The elastic band on the boy's boxer shorts, just visible above his jeans, sports the words "Sex Life," a sad cultural commentary on such a vicious early death.
Violent clashes in Madagascar, Gaza and Afghanistan are also prominent in the featured images, with one photograph by The New York Times' Adam Ferguson, awarded first place for individual spot news, particularly noteworthy. The picture captures an older woman being rushed away from a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. A soldier and an aid worker flank her, each holding one of her outstretched arms, and the horror is plain on her open-mouthed face, streaming with blood. One of the more recognizable photographs in the exhibition also comes from the Afghanistan conflict; shot by David Guttenfelder of the Associated Press, it depicts three American soldiers from behind as they defend a position in the war-torn Korengal Valley. Specialist Zachary Boyd had no time to pull on his pants before rushing from his bunker, so he takes aim next to his fellow soldiers while wearing pink "I Love NY" boxer shorts. The photo caused quite a stir when published in the United States; depending on your viewpoint, the soldier's actions are either incredibly brave or recklessly foolish. Regardless, it's a great piece of war photography and benefits from an even bigger canvas here.
The 2010 Tour
For a list of all the confirmed dates and venues for the 2010 World Press Photo Exhibition tour, click the link below:
World Press Photo Exhibition Calendar
But violence is not the only prominent theme in the exhibition. Images of daily life from around the globe also benefit from the rare chance to examine their detail and rich color. Michael Wolf's first-prize shot of a woman on the Tokyo subway at rush hour, her face pressed up against a glass window while she shuts her eyes tightly, is a moving tribute to the quiet pain of the modern commute. Indeed, the portraiture on display is nothing short of phenomenal. A series on androgynous children and adolescents who were followed by photographer Annie van Gemert over a five-year period is enough to challenge any viewer's gender perceptions. Also arresting is Denis Rouvre's portrait collection of Senegalese wrestlers, pictured shirtless against a black background, their chests smeared with milk-like potions and chalky pigments to drive away evil. The mixture of fear and strength in their steady gazes is difficult to turn from.
The jury awarded its Photo of the Year award to Italian photographer Pietro Masturzo's picture of women yelling in protest from a Tehran rooftop after Iran's disputed elections in June 2009. Far removed from a detailed portrait, Masturzo shot from an elevated vantage point across the street, lending the eerie nighttime scene an epic, timeless quality.
But it's a bright, blue-and-yellow-hued photograph shot skyward from under water that is the exhibit's true centerpiece. Hungarian Joe Petersburger, a Ph.D.-holding biologist in addition to being an award-winning wildlife photographer, captures the moment that a kingfisher bird dives underwater to snare its prey and traps a small fish in its beak. Amid the thrashing, the viewer's gaze centers on the serene, pearl-colored eye of the kingfisher, which has a transparent third eyelid that closes for protection while allowing the bird to see underwater. The photograph, which won first place in the nature category, is simply stunning, a mixture of focus and movement that also required enormous technical skill.
Like Petersburger's, the best photos in the World Press Photo exhibit truly blur the lines between journalism and art. To see them large and up close, to measure the pain in a face or the exuberance of a tribal ritual, is a deeply moving experience. If photojournalism is largely about split-second decisions and instinctual reactions, the considered presentation of the World Press Photo exhibit makes clear that the genre includes artistic images of the highest quality. They should be valued all the more for the risks, perseverance and talent required to capture them.