History of the Photo Contest
Growth of the contest
The first World Press Photo award, back in 1955, came about when some members of the Dutch photojournalists’ union (Nederlandse Vereniging van Fotojournalisten, NVF) had the idea of turning a national competition—the Zilveren Camera—into an international one. The new international contest marked the 25th anniversary of the NVF, with a public exhibition to be held in December 1955. Almost immediately, the step was taken from organizing a one-off event to creating an annual contest – and one has been held almost every year since then. Since that very first contest, winning pictures have been put together into an exhibition.
In 1955, 42 photographers from 11 countries submitted just over 300 photos for judging. The following year the number of entrants quadrupled, with nearly double the nationalities. The 1960s saw a slow but steady growth in both participants and the range of countries they came from. For many years the contest drew entries from 40 to 50 different lands, breaking the 60-barrier during a surge in the late 1980s. There was an even larger growth spurt during the 1990s, with 1,280 photographers from 64 countries entering 11,043 photos at the beginning of the decade increasing to 3,733 photographers of 116 nationalities and 36,836 photos in 1999. Today the annual contest attracts well over 5,000 participants from around 125 countries, who together send in upwards of 95,000 photos.
Over the years, the categories into which photos were grouped in the contest have changed. This growth has been organic—a shifting of shape that reflected how the media presented images to the public. The contest has been a mechanism for collecting the strongest images of each year—not a holy template of style, but the mirror of a process of development. The archive reveals this development in its entirety.
At first, there were just a few divisions: News and Sports containing single photos, and the specific designations Features and Picture Stories for photo stories. From 1965, there was a separate section for color photos. In the 1970s, a new phase became evident, when Features split into News Features and General Features. This movement culminated in 1975 with the establishment of ten named categories. Names, focus and classifications have changed over the decades, but this move laid the foundation for the contest categories in use today.
Occasionally, a photo that does not meet contest criteria of being taken by a photojournalist within a professional context is given special mention. This happens when the jury nominates an image without which the visual record of a year is held to be incomplete. The first photo to be given a special mention was one of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the moon.
Jury and prizes
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 neutrality. An independent international jury is composed each year to judge contest submissions.
The first jury comprised just five members, from the UK, West Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but 1956 already saw the first Eastern Bloc member on the panel. Throughout the Cold War both Russians and Americans sat on the jury—their votes usually balancing each other out. By the end of the decade, the number of jury members had climbed to nine, from seven different countries. In the 1960s, separate juries were formed from time to time to judge sports photos, choose the leading Dutch photo, or the ‘most artistic photo’, but in the 1970s all judging was once again consolidated in a single panel. The exception (from 1984 to 2003) was a special Children’s Jury, made up of schoolchildren from around the world, which awarded its own prize.
These days jurists come from industrial nations and the developing world, from West and East, from all manner of religious and political backgrounds. The composition of the jury—from all aspects of the profession—changes from year to year. A breakdown of successive juries is included on the Contest facts page from each year.
In addition to the World Press Photo of the Year, first, second and third prizes (and occasionally an Honorable mention) are awarded for single photos and stories in each of the contest categories. Over the decades, there have also been one-off prizes, such as the Woman in View prize, awarded in 1975, the United Nations’ Women’s Year, and longer-running special awards, such as a Public’s favorite and the Novosti/TASS Prize for the best photo on the subject of ‘peace, progress and humanism’.
Today, World Press Photo finds itself in the position where it not only runs the world’s most prestigious contest of photojournalism, but administers the world’s widest-ranging annual photo exhibition and offers a breadth of related activities that is unmatched. With each year, an evaluation of the contest brings about adjustments and expansions that build upon the existing structure, such as the use of specialized juries in 2010 and the creation of a distinct contest for multimedia productions in 2011. This dynamic approach ensures that the contest continues to grow and evolve alongside the profession.