This year I am assigned as ‘house photographer’ of World Press Photo. A great assignment. Not only am I working with a great team of people, I have the opportunity to see how the World Press Photo works. Especially the judging procedure of the photo and multimedia contest. At the same time, it’s not an easy assignment.
To start with the last part, one of the tasks I have to do is to photograph the judging. It is not the most photogenic situation, people sitting on a chair watching a screen. Off course I can’t go stand right in front of the jury members, so I am a bit limited in where I stand. Luckily I like these kind of challenges, to make an interesting photo of situations that aren’t that obvious. What makes it even more difficult is the lighting, or better the lack of it. The room the judges are in, is completely blinded. The only light is the reflected light of the big screen. That’s really it. Another challenge I like, working without flash in very dark circumstances. It takes patient to get the picture, waiting for an image on the screen that is bright enough to put some light on the faces.
At these moments I am very happy living in the digital age. The cameras nowadays are very good. Since World Press Photo is supported by Canon, I am working with a Canon camera off course. Actually, I would have chosen the EOS 5D Mark III anyway. Not only it is very capable of producing good quality at high ISO, I am working on ISO 12800 most of the time, the silent mode is a bless. Me walking around is disturbing enough I would think, so the more quite it can be the better. It’s that combination that rocks in this kind of situations. I am using mostly primes, to get as much light in as possible. I need the light not only for see something on the photo itself, but also for focussing since there is hardly any contrast to focus on.
Strangely enough I really enjoy working in these kind of situations. But what I really like about the assignment is to see a part of the jury at work. I won’t explain the whole procedure, the blog jury secretary David Campbell wrote last year explains it very well. I can confirm that the procedures are followed precisely, the secretary is very strict as he should be. Seeing the judging procedure myself I am even more impressed by how well the contest is set up and how dedicated and motivated the jury members are. It is an enriching experience, on several levels.
When I interviewed jury members for a photo magazine, I have always been told that they see the images in the first round for about one second. It has to be that fast, since they have to see almost 100,000 pictures in a week. Can you imagine? The question is whether that second is long enough. I found out it is, at least if you have a well trained eye, which the jury members have. The first round is to shift the big pile of photos and good work absolutely stands out immediately. The further the process, the longer the jury can see the images. The debating starts.
That’s when it really becomes interesting. Following the jury process is like following a masterclass. With editors as well as photographers from different fields of photography, the debates are on a high level with lots of different points of view. They don’t take anything for granted, but reflect the remarks of the fellow members with their own opinion and experience. It is not what they say about a particular image or series, but more on a wider view on photography.
That is especially the case at the handover meeting, where the specialized juries share their findings. The new managing director Lars Boering said to Time he wants World Press Photo to be a think tank and that was actually happening that evening. The discussion was not about what images are great, but how the field of photography has changed. For photographers, but also for editors and how World Press Photo could participate. Editors for instance are often not educated to be a picture editor anymore, while the need for good visual storytelling is bigger than ever and photographers can’t do it by their own. Making a series is not just stacking single images. The jury members made that clear at the meeting. And they are so right.
At the same time photographers must adept a new way of telling stories. Too often stories are told as done so many times. “We can’t keep telling stories our grandpa was telling, maybe we should look at something different,” said Simon Njami at the handover meeting. Photographers seem to go for the known, the awarded, instead of showing their own vision. That is a real problem for photography. Just as Donald Weber says in his interview at the World Press Photo site, there is nothing wrong with stories often told, it is about how you tell the story. And that is exactly what the jury is looking at, the vision of the photographer.
Seeing quite a lot of the submitted images and hearing the opinion of the jury members I start contemplating about my own photography. I am thinking about what I want to tell, if I am really making the stories I want to make. Right now I am working on some projects and with the experience of the judging I am rethinking if I am doing the right thing. Not the subject per se, but more on the visual language and the storylines I am using. Why do I like a certain photo and why don’t I? Am I looking for the same four elements (historical, sociological, psychological and aesthetic) jury chair Michele McNally is looking for and if so, how can I put those in my photography? It is actually just basic thinking for a photographer I guess, and it is not the first time I am thinking about it. The past days just opened the road again and that’s good. I don’t want to be a photographer who is standing still. I want to grow and improve.
Not to win a prize at World Press Photo, but to be a better storyteller. Therefore I am looking forward to see which photos will be awarded this year. I know now for sure that every winner is debated, every photo is analyzed. Being at the judging is a privilege, it helps improving my photography. And I hope and expect the winners selection to be a good inspiration to move forwards.
Disclaimer: for quotes I am referring to online posted quotes by the jury members only. I can’t quote myself, it is up to the jury to publish what has been said during the debates.