1981 Photo Contest in context

In 1980, Uganda suffered from one of the worst famines recorded in Africa’s history, killing 21 percent of the people living there. Mike Wells’ photo of a starving child’s hand became World Press Photo of the Year 1980.

Famine also struck refugee camps in Somalia, where people from Ethiopia’s troublesome Ogaden region had fled, forced to leave their homes by the Ethiopian government. Another troubled place was Gwangju in South Korea, where peaceful demonstrations against the newly installed military government were brutally suppressed. 1980 also marked the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war and the military coup in Liberia, while Mount St. Helens erupted in the United States for the first time in 123 years. More uplifting photos were provided by the Moscow Summer Olympics, a successful heart transplant in the UK, and the travelling pope.

In 1980, the Cold War reached a new high point. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics and was followed by 64 other countries. This new low point in East-West relations also seemed to be reflected in the 1981 World Press Photo Contest. East-German jury member Heinz Frotscher later qualified the World Press Photo of the Year as the result of a silent compromise not to choose a photo that might represent a distinct political stance and embarrass the other. Even if his analysis is only remotely accurate, it may still explain the lack of some important events among the winning pictures. Such as: the mass strike in the shipyards of Poland, the presidential elections in the United States, and the Russian military presence in Afghanistan.

Ironically, Mike Wells was a reluctant winner of the World Press Photo of the Year. He had not been aware that Life magazine had submitted the image, until he learned that he had won from a telex by The Associated Press: “It put me in a rather embarrassing position. I never entered the competition—and if I had, I do not know if this is the picture I would have entered. It doesn’t seem very clever to be winning prizes with pictures of people starving to death,” Wells said in an interview.

Entry statistics
  • 801 photographers
  • 53 countries
  • 4660 pictures
  • 3510 black and white
  • 1150 color
1981 Photo Contest jury
  • Gerhard Aeckerle, West Germany, picture editor Stern
  • Floris de Bonneville, France, editor in chief Gamma
  • Heinz Frotscher, East Germany, acting managing director ADN/Zentralbild
  • Bill Lyon, USA, vice president news pictures UPI
  • Peter Magubane, South Africa, photographer Rand Daily Mail
  • Vincent Mentzel, the Netherlands, photographer NRC Handelsblad
  • Patricia Seppälä, Finland, managing director Lehtikuva Oy
  • Olga Suslova, USSR, editor in chief Soviet Photo Magazine
Chair of the jury
  • Harold Evans, UK, Editor The Sunday Times

    The 1981 jury (© Ed van der Elsken)

    Bill Lyon, Harold Evans and Floris de Bonneville judging color slides, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1981 (© Vincent Mentzel)

    Ed van der Elsken and Peter Magubane, who is wearing Van der Elsken's fur coat (© Vincent Mentzel)

    Harald Evans and Mike Wells’ winning photo being filmed by Ed van der Elsken (© Vincent Mentzel)

    Newsletter with the announcement of the 24th World Press Photo Contest

    Cover 1981 yearbook

    1981 Amsterdam exhibition poster (photo: René Leveque)