Whither World Press Photo?

World Press Photo (WPP) has long been criticised for the colonial demographics of its power structure. After years of foot-dragging, someone somewhere seems to have woken up. There is not a single white male on the new WPP international advisory committee. A tectonic shift considering how the boards of the past were stacked with them.

2003 Jury © Peter Dejong
International Jury of World Press Photo contest 2003. Left to right Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Mexico; Mitsuaki Iwago, Japan; Eva Fischer, Germany; Herbert Mabuza, South Africa; Andrew Wong, People’s Republic of China; Alexander Zemlianichenko, Russia; Brechtje Rood, the Netherlands; Adriaan Monshouwer, the Netherlands (secretary of jury); Shahidul Alam, Bangladesh (chair); Maggie Steber, USA; Sarah Harbutt, USA; Paolo Pellegrin, Italy; Margot Klingsporn, Germany; Pierre Fernandez, France. © Peter Dejong

I remember my 1993 letter to the managing director Marloes Krijnen, that the name European Press Photo would be a more appropriate name for the organisation. While there have been some changes, it seems to have taken nearly thirty years for penny to drop that the word ‘World’, does have a specific meaning.

The shifts are very welcome, but there is still a very long way to go. Europe and North America together make up roughly 17% of the world’s population. Yet some 62% of the contests entries are from there. Not surprising therefore, that the awards and the accolades, tend to stay close to home.

Back in 2003 when I chaired the international jury, I had been the first person of colour to have occupied that position in WPP’s 48 year history. While the structure of the jury has changed, it’s still significant that in recent years, women of colour have graced that position.

Freedom of Expression is another priority area for the new WPP. Whether WPP is prepared to walk the walk remains to be seen. It is rare to find a government that doesn’t espouse freedom and democracy in its rhetoric, but actually suppresses dissent of all forms in its practice. The same countries that dominate the entries, and often the awards, are quick to denounce autocratic states in brown countries, while bolstering their favoured rulers, and at the same time persecuting dissenters at home. Saudi Arabia in the first category and Snowden and Assange in the second category are prominent examples. While WPP has no control over who wins the awards, the contest has highlighted injustice in ‘favoured nations’ in the past, though a critical look at suppressing dissent closer to home appears to have been absent. We need to wait and see whether Freedom of Expression applies only to some.

The strategy plan states ‘We are a well known brand, with high integrity, that serves as a bridge between the photojournalism industry and general public.’ Indeed that is the case. What needs to be seen is whether WPP uses that goodwill and clout to make a difference where it matters.

The fact that Joumana El Zein Khoury the new managing director, has spoken to 150 people across the globe is a sign that WPP plans on becoming a listening organisation. The emphasis on regional balance is long overdue. The regional contests are a clear move in a direction that has long been wanting. Whether the new categories format will work remains to be seen. Many photographers are trophy hunters and known to shoot, and certainly submit, on the basis of existing categories. So, some handholding with the core stakeholders might well be needed.

The real game changer however is in the key initiatives in the regions. Contests, masterclasses and exhibitions in Africa, Asia and Latin America will make a huge difference, but the most dramatic impact will be through the archives. The strategy plan suggests the archives will only concentrate on the contest itself. I believe WPP needs to think bigger. If it is to be a global player, it needs to embrace more than itself and address the wider photographic community. Photographers are dying as we speak. In wealthier countries there are institutions and experts who have the resources and interest in preserving their archives. Things are very different in the majority world. Often where survival is an issue, preserving history is seen as a luxury, and the visual history of the majority world is rapidly becoming extinct as an entire generation of visual historians pass away. Preserving what they have and building a culture of preservation in the generations to follow, will have a lasting legacy. After sixty six years of existence, legacy should be something an organisation aspires towards.

Shahidul Alam, Dhaka, September 29, 2021.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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