The photo was of a motor-cross competitor taking a tumble from his motorcycle. The date, 1955. The award, the first ever World Press Photo of the Year.
Almost every year since has seen a contest and a winning image. Some of the photos have become iconic - a naked girl running after a napalm attack in Vietnam; a Buddhist monk who has set himself alight; a sole demonstrator standing in front of tanks on Tiananmen Square. Others have set trends, established styles of press photography that can be seen re-emerging in years to come.
From National to International
That 1955 award came after members of the Dutch photojournalists' union had the idea of creating an international competition to complement a national one, the Zilveren Camera. They hoped to benefit from exposure to the work of international colleagues. So, from the beginning, the various elements that form the World Press Photo compound were in evidence - not only the contest, exhibition and award, but also its educative and communicative roles.
The first contest catalyzed discussion in local newspapers about the nature of press photography; later images sparked even more furious debate. Political controversy also made an early appearance. Then as now, World Press Photo set great store by maintaining its independence. Throughout the Cold War, both Russians and Americans sat on the jury - their votes usually balancing each other out.
The year 1960 saw the establishment of the foundation which forms the basis of today's organization. The popularity of the contest and consequent exhibition grew steadily throughout the 1970s. By the 1980s, the exhibition was traveling even farther afield. The contest was gaining considerable prestige and numbers of entrants had rocketed. World Press Photo entered a new phase. The decision was made to professionalize the organization, employ hired staff, and establish an office that would provide a firm base for the international scope of the contest and exhibition. A strong financial structure was needed for this, and the first corporate sponsors came on board in 1987.
Increasing contact between photojournalists around the world - many of whom had limited access to new creative and technological developments - sparked a demand for local training initiatives. World Press Photo established itself not only as a platform for photojournalism, but also as a catalyst for education of photographers. The impulse behind the first contest in 1955 - that of putting local Dutch photojournalists more in touch with the work of international colleagues - re-emerged to give rise to workshops and seminars.
In 1990, the first such seminar was held in Budapest, and they are now a regular feature of World Press Photo's activities. Four years later, the first Joop Swart Masterclass for talented young photographers was held in Amsterdam, setting the tone for what has become an annual benchmark of excellence within the profession.
Into the Future
The first years of a new century have seen not only World Press Photo's 50th anniversary, but further restructuring of the organization as it adapts to a changing world. World Press Photo now finds itself in the position where it not only runs the world's most prestigious international contest of photojournalism, but also administers the world's widest-ranging annual photo exhibition, and offers a breadth of related activities that is unmatched.