1980 Photo Contest in context

In January 1979, the Vietnamese army captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and ended the Khmer Rouge regime. The Vietnamese invasion caused a mass migration of Cambodians fleeing to makeshift camps near the Thai border. Later, they moved to holding centers in Thailand, where David Burnett made his award-winning photo of a Cambodian mother and her child.

At the same time, thousands of Vietnamese refugees took to the sea in rickety boats, fleeing the communist regime in Vietnam. In Iran, a new regime assumed power in 1979 as well. Its effect was reflected in the confused look of the former Shah and, more poignantly, in a photo made by an anonymous photojournalist who witnessed the execution of several Kurdish rebels. The photographer’s identity was not revealed until 2006.

Two new awards were introduced in the 1980 contest: the one-off United Nations Award and the Oskar Barnack Award, sponsored by camera manufacturer Leica, in honor of Oskar Barnack’s 100th birthday in 1979. Barnack had been the inventor of the first practical compact camera using standard 35 mm film. The award was given to the photographer of a photo story that expressed “in the most perceptive and illustrative way the relationship of man to his environment.” Dutchman Floris Bergkamp became the first winner with his reportage of Greenpeace activists trying to stop the dumping of nuclear waste. In 1993, World Press Photo would organize the Oskar Barnack Award for the last time.

The United Nations Award, intended for a photo story depicting positive developments in what were then called third-world countries, was surrounded by controversy. The prize had been created in connection with World Press Photo’s planned exhibition in the UN headquarters. When it became clear that the UN was going to censor the exhibition by removing a considerable number of prize-winning photos from the spot news, portraits, photo sequences and sports categories, World Press Photo canceled the exhibition. Instead of being presented with the award at the UN headquarters in New York, its Russian winner received his prize in Moscow. World Press Photo, however, was criticized for awarding a seemingly propagandistic view on daily life in Vietnam.

Jury members from communist countries had been especially pleased with the United Nations Award, because of its accent on positive news. In an interview, Russian jury member Olga Suslova described Soviet photography as “true to life,” never insulting and always educating. Czechoslovakian jury member Daniela Mrázková said that good photojournalism showed all aspects of life: birth and death, young and old, happiness and sadness. She had missed good sociological photo stories in the contest. An interesting observation came from jury chairman Guus van der Heijden, who remarked that the jury unanimously had rejected all subjects that had dominated the news in 1979, including the new pope and Ayatollah Khomeini.

Entry statistics
  • 905 photographers
  • 54 countries
  • 4888 pictures
  • 3949 black and white
  • 939 color
1980 Photo Contest jury
  • Christopher Angeloglou, UK, assistant editor The Sunday Times
  • Juliane Berensmann, West Germany, picture editor Die Zeit Magazin
  • Walter Bernard, USA, art director Time
  • Paul Greene, Italy, chief visual media section information division, FAO
  • Mochtar Lubis, Indonesia, editor Horizon
  • Daniela Mrázková, Czechoslovakia, editor Czechoslovakian Television
  • Bert Sprenkeling, the Netherlands, picture editor Het Parool
  • Olga Suslova, USSR, editor in chief Soviet Photo Magazine
Chair of the jury
  • Guus van der Heijden, the Netherlands, managing director Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau Foto
Secretary of the jury
  • Lenie Vesters, Avenue magazine

The jury poses for the press, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1980 (© Vincent Mentzel)

The jury at work, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1980 (© Vincent Mentzel)

David Burnett and Chris van der Klaauw, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Awards Ceremony in the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, 4 April 1980 (© Vincent Mentzel)

David Burnett, Prince Bernhard and Foreign Minister Van der Klaauw at the Awards Ceremony in the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, 2 April 1980 (© Vincent Mentzel)

Floris Bergkamp receives the Oskar Barnack Award from a Leitz representative, Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, 2 April 1980 (© Jacques Klok/ANP)

1980 yearbook

1980 Amsterdam exhibition poster