Speech by Pieter Broertjes, chairman of the Board World Press Photo, at the 2009 Awards Ceremony

Speech by Pieter Broertjes, chairman of the Board World Press Photo, at the 2009 Awards Ceremony

Good evening Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

There is something comforting about a photograph. It captures a moment of history. It records time. The events shown are behind us. The photographs themselves may show chaos, but viewing them is reassuringly straightforward. With a sigh of relief, the viewer takes comfort from the knowledge he or she will not need to endure what the photographer did.

Meanwhile, the photographer concentrates not on the events of yesterday, but on those of tomorrow. Photojournalism feeds on the conviction that a better understanding of the past will help us in the future. And indeed, sometimes it does. If the highest standards of excellence, integrity and credibility are met, the viewer's mind can be penetrated. His attitudes can be shaped. His conduct can be influenced. And his world changed. 

We at World Press Photo firmly believe in awards as catalysts in this process. Awards identify work that has been judged and selected by prominent authorities. They provide benchmarks for the makers of news, and for their audiences. And so, tonight's ceremony is not only a tribute to the best achievements of our photographic fraternity, but also an incentive for the years to come.

The current global crisis has not left the news industry unaffected. An industry that was under severe pressure even before the stocks started to crumble. Costs were already rising, revenues already declining, technologies already competing and audiences already in disarray. That does not make our job any simpler.

But it is not all darkness. There is, after all, no shortage of important issues to address, no shortage of consumers interested in the truth and no shortage of technology with which to reach them. Now if only there was no shortage of money to pay for it all....we may dream, may we not?

The path forward is easy to find but hard to walk. It is the path of long-term excellence rather than short-term gain. The path of professional expertise rather than that of mediocrity and sensationalism - paths that feed on amateurs who happen to be in the right place at the right time, but without the right mindset.

So, it's quality and professionalism. Will they be enough? They had better be, because they are all we have. So perhaps we should stop complaining about the crisis and start applying our creativity and skill to the development of new distribution methods. New remuneration schemes. New approaches. New energies. Energies with which we can finally leave the 20th century behind us. Who was it who said it is time for change?

It won't be easy. Photography was never easy. But increasingly, today's photographers face new challenges. The shift to digital has brought huge advantages in terms of speed and distribution. But with increased ease comes increased responsibility. The vast possibilities offered by image enhancement and manipulation software have added a hazardous degree of freedom. In the past, photographers could influence how we see things, by playing with light, composition and timing. Now, they have much greater control over what we see - and what we don't.

It is hard to imagine that only a generation ago people used to say ‘the camera never lies'. We now know it can, and does, as several high profile examples of manipulated images have shown. As you may know, I myself am in daily life editor in chief of one of Holland's most respected national newspapers, and I must confess that even I and my extremely knowledgeable staff recently failed to spot manipulation to such an extent it must in retrospect be described as falsification.

Further research showed that the photographer in question - a highly regarded professional of many years experience - had in the past regularly added to (or subtracted from) reality in preparing his images for publication. The incident reminds us not only of our own fallibility, but also of the increasing temptations to which photographers are subject: the temptation to overstate reality for personal gain. And in case you are wondering: no, my newspaper no longer employs the services of the photographer in question.

The integrity of our profession is under pressure from competing ideologies and commercial forces. Objectivity and subjectivity are not the simple terms we once may have thought. It is therefore an important task of every photojournalist to regularly consult his conscience both during and after his work.

In our organization, we rely on the honesty and integrity of photographers to uphold the highest standards of reporting. This evening, we will all be able to re-establish that no trickery is needed in meeting this requirement with work that is honest, truthful and insightful. We as a profession are responsible for these values. We must lead by example.  

So in closing, let me complete a circle. In uncertain times, there is something comforting about photography. Photography, itself born from the marriage of technology and culture, and now at the very center of recording the technological and cultural revolutions we are privileged to witness. As the age of information moves steadily towards the age of knowledge, photography will remain the prime recorder of these revolutions. It is photography that will help us see what makes today different from yesterday. A difference that may inspire at times, or unsettle. Just think of the newsphoto's of the tragedy on Queensday four day's ago.

Sometimes, it may show the sordid side of reality and, at other moments, reflect the essence of spirituality. But in all cases, photography will play a role in teaching us what is true. And we viewers will learn from these lessons.