Do photojournalism contests glamorize pain and suffering?

Feb 16, 2018

Allen Murabayashi

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Do photojournalism contests glamorize pain and suffering?

Feb 16, 2018

Allen Murabayashi

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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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.1 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.

Jurist Thomas Borberg said in a WPP-produced video that “You have to be able to feel a World Press Photo in your stomach. If not, it’s not a World Press Photo.” Given this position, it’s not surprising that violent images are the ones that provoke stomach churning reactions.

Media reinforces and shapes public perception whether intended or not. And the same photos and photographers tend to win multiple awards in a given year, thus generations of photojournalists are led to believe that contest-worthy images must conform to a certain look-and-feel. This isn’t just conjecture. A well-known documentary photography who eschews photo contests told me in response to the WPP images, “Disaster porn photojournalism is corrosive to that idea by constantly saturating our media world with the message that the world is hell and never gets any better. Therefore, the logic goes, things like foreign aid are a waste and trying to help places like Africa is doomed to unending failure.”

Why do the final photos have to be of a man on fire or legs beneath a body bag? Why not the world’s largest lithium ion battery that solved an energy crisis in Australia? Why not a portrait of Tarana Burke? Are these images not salacious enough for a contest-sized appetite?

Contests (and portfolio reviews) are, for better or worse, efficient mechanisms for photographers to market themselves. This isn’t a clarion call for the elimination of either. But photographers, photo editors and contest organizers might reconsider how the selection of winners forms its own narrative of the world, and whether this narrow distillation creates a restricted and distorted view of reality.

About the Author

Allen Murabayashi is a graduate of Yale University, the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter blog, and a co-host of the “I Love Photography” podcast on iTunes. For more of his work, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

[Cover photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse]

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5 responses to “Do photojournalism contests glamorize pain and suffering?”

  1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
    Tj Ó Seamállaigh

    I’m a member in a photography group (club) here and the leader of the group obviously said this several times: the matter of winning a contest is dependent on luck, and on your work to study the jury. Personally, I’ve always despised photography contest (and found an ally in Bruce Barnbaum who expressed this opinion in some of his books). When I got into the world of photography, I had some specific mental process and psychological need to express myself and slowly this went from experimenting to really composing and doing things I like. Not to say I’m a good photographer or anything, but doing what the JURY wants or expect, is not much of an art to me and not a self-expressing. Sure, if I was to make a living from photography, I would have to compromise my artistic views and beliefs in order to deliver a work which pleases the client and get paid for it. But with contests, it is a different matter. Why I’m supposed to compromise? An award? Statistically speaking, what are my chances of winning such an award? As someone who enrolled in some contests (on behalf of our group), and specifically the Trierenberg Circuit, I could easily see and figure out that portraits, nudes, and exotic places are the ones that take the larger portion of the pie. Even though this contest specifically has a wide range of themes and categories, yet you would see the focus and concentration on such fields of photography. Other minor contests (specifically those originating from the Balkan region) do express this focus rather clearly, with small number of themes, with a direct title for each theme without an explanation (and does not need an explanation), such as: Women, Nudes, Portrait. Sometimes I do feel like a fool for participating in such contests and pay the fees and KNOWING for sure that my images will not even be recognized. I had to do it under the pressure from the club, but now I’m freeing myself from all of that and focusing on shooting for me; doing photography because I need it to express, not impress.

  2. shakil ahamed Avatar
    shakil ahamed

    Really photojournalism is great profession and also challenging. I love photojournalist causes they give us interesting and also memorable photo take with risk. Thanks a lot for sharing a nice topic.

  3. Iván Camilo Ospina Avatar
    Iván Camilo Ospina

    ? they are photojournalists…war and violence is what they need to cover…

  4. Michele M. Ferrario Avatar
    Michele M. Ferrario

    If you see the whole series of image there is no glamour here.

  5. Michele M. Ferrario Avatar
    Michele M. Ferrario

    “Why do the final photos have to be of a man on fire or legs beneath a body bag? Why not the world’s largest lithium ion battery that solved an energy crisis in Australia? Why not a portrait of Tarana Burke? Are these images not salacious enough for a contest-sized appetite?”

    One: there are category in wpp for portrait and science photo.

    Two: it’s a photojournalism prize. And sorry if be in the middle of a battle was different from take a photo to a fuk*ing battery.