Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Can photographs change the world? Not many pictures even provide definitive answers to our questions about the world. Photography is too often a simple channel for information and the four basic "W's" of the picture caption are the cornerstone of photojournalism: Who, What, Where and When. But to this, the ambitious photojournalist can hope to add the fifth element, Why.
The jury of the 2008 World Press Photo competition put special emphasis on this last component and in their judgement the very best of last year's photojournalism went beyond giving us plain facts or attempting simplistic answers. In every category they looked for pictures that did something more difficult - they were looking for images that would stimulate our curiosity, challenging the viewer to read the captions, inspiring us to think and to develop our own responses to the issues raised. As Gary Knight, the jury chair, wrote in his foreword to the yearbook, these awards do not mark the end of a process, but rather a new beginning from which we the viewers can take fresh knowledge as a foundation on which to build our understanding of the world around us.
We hope that as you look at the winning pictures you agree that these photographs go this extra step, and we invite you to accept the invitation to look beyond the images and to explore the issues behind them. Some pictures are challenging, others are metaphorical, and some simply strengthen our perspective of ordinary subjects with a fresh visual style. The judges sought to reward creative, effective journalism, and as is clear in the Premiere Award, technical perfection is not as important as communication power. Metaphor is as important as representation and Tim Hetherington's picture is more than "an American soldier resting" as the stark factual caption describes it. Look beyond the superficial narratives and you will find reflections on power, studies in mystery, you will see irrepressible optimism and the joy of nostalgia.
But you will also see the life-long shadows cast by childhood abuse and, of course, the wrenching violence of conflict. The awards were given to layered imagery in which each of us can find our own understanding. These pictures oblige us to respond.
Yet in the process of recognizing the best of the year's press photography, some members of the jury identified another trend. So much of what they saw was disappointingly familiar, as though the photographers were blindly mimicking stories that had been seen before. So many stories were retold copies in style and content of things that we have already seen. Telling us what we already know seems like the very opposite of good journalism, leaving the jury puzzled as to why so many photographers would invest time, energy and money to only repeat someone else's investigation, creating hollow stories without the creative drive or curiosity that marks original work. The information industry is undergoing seismic change, opening so many new opportunities for communication and yet too many people are taking refuge in the familiarity of what has gone before.
Why should this be?
The jury comprising 13 top professionals in the industry has several perspectives. On the one hand, it is clear that there is a need for honest factual reporting, and the reality that many significant stories have not ended justifies the repetitious reminder that some problems wait year after year to be resolved. Add to this the pressure of moment-to-moment electronic deadlines plus competition from the internet's "citizen journalists" and sometimes it is enough just to be on the scene and to get a picture out; the web's unrelenting deadline clock says, "good enough is good enough - just deliver a picture of what you see and move on!" This pressure on time is not conducive to in-depth reporting.
Even as the demand for information increases many top photographers report that magazines' investment in photojournalism is declining; assignments are getting shorter and funding for research, travel and personal security is declining, limiting the opportunities for in-depth coverage. Editors see it slightly differently with budgets remaining stable but the demand for increased output, needing to stretch every Euro to create twice as much work, most significantly with the requirement for multimedia newsgathering layered on top of traditional photography. While photography remains a staple of the print media and is indeed the focal point of most web pages, moving imagery and audio content are now required back-up, putting additional weight on reporters - and indeed on World Press Photo - to accommodate the new formats.
Into the mix come new sponsors of journalism, including aid agencies and non governmental organizations with narrow requirements to generate imagery of their specialized endeavors, and it becomes clear that the landscape is changing for what we used to call "press" photography. One additional element of change is perhaps the most significant: while our industry is transforming at breakneck speed, our audience is moving even faster. As the world shrinks, the audience for information is growing and their expectations - OUR expectations - are transforming the language of communication. It's easy to see why some photographers are confused about what makes great reportage.
The challenge is out to the whole industry: adapt and expand to meet the demands of the 21st Century. World Press Photo is itself undergoing a review to investigate how we can respond to the evolving press environment, and meanwhile we offer these awards as examples of the best that is possible in these amazing times. Take confidence from the winners to see how the brave choice of subjects, brave styles and of course brave photographers can help us understand the world better. This is true journalism.
We hope that these awards will be an inspiration to the millions of viewers who we invite to dig deep and to ask questions about the issues represented in the exhibition, in the yearbook and of course online. We hope the awards will inspire editors who we encourage to be increasingly supportive of the photographers they work with; and of course an inspiration to the photographers themselves, who as I speak, are working on next year's winning pictures.
Can a picture change the world? Perhaps. But it is in our own hands to do the hard work. It is up to each of us to pick up the challenges set before us by these pictures and each in our own way to make a difference by thought, discussion and action.