1985 Photo Contest in context

In 1984, India’s premier Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards, Nicaragua—torn by civil war—organized elections, The Jacksons toured for the last time, Los Angeles organized the Summer Olympics, and Cuba celebrated the 25th anniversary of its revolution.

Two tragic news events, however, prevailed in 1984: the famine in Ethiopia and the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands of people. The World Press Photo of the Year 1984 was awarded to Pablo Bartholomew for his portrait of a child killed by the poisonous gas leaking from the chemical plant in Bhopal.

In Ethiopia, another poor harvest and an ongoing civil war in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre created one of the worst famines ever to strike the country. International aid was slow to arrive at first, due to the complicated political situation. But increasing press coverage in the West, supported by private initiatives like Band Aid, raised public awareness and subsequently enormous sums of money. As jury member Howard Chapnick put it in his foreword in the 1985 yearbook: “For more than a decade, tears flowed, bodies wasted, and the inexorable tide of African deaths continued. But the world was not listening. And then came the photojournalists, video cameramen and still photographers who brought out images of concentrated horror.”

Chapnick also published some advice for hopeful contestants in Popular Photography. Although he strongly believed in great photojournalism made to communicate and not to win awards, he also stressed the importance of winning contests for a photographer’s professional reputation and promotion. “The judging systems aren’t perfect. But my experience indicates that generally the cream rises to the top,” Chapnick wrote. To survive the strenuous judging process, a picture had to be simple and direct, compelling and revealing. He admitted that a dramatic subject—often found in violence, tragedy, and conflict—enhanced the chance of winning. But winning should not be an end in itself. The satisfaction and rewards that come from recognition by your peers could spice up your career and open new horizons.

The Los Angeles Summer Olympics dominated the sports category in the 1985 contest, including several winning pictures from Mary Decker’s fall during the 3,000-meter race that destroyed her Olympic dreams. Cuban-American photographer José Azel received a special prize, the Amsterdam Olympic Award, a one-off initiative by the City of Amsterdam, candidate for the 1992 Olympic Games, for the best picture or photo story taken during the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo or Los Angeles.

Entry statistics
  • 859 photographers
  • 55 countries
  • 5811 pictures
  • 3378 black and white
  • 2433 color
1985 Photo Contest jury
  • Istvàn Bara, Hungary, managing director MTI
  • Christian Caujolle, France, picture editor Libération
  • Howard Chapnick, USA, president Black Star
  • Friso Endt, the Netherlands, business editor NRC Handelsblad
  • Yuri Golovjatenko, USSR, chief editor Novosti Press Agency
  • Colin Jacobson, UK, picture editor The Observer Magazine
  • Heinz Morstadt, West Germany, managing editor Bunte Illustrierte
  • Per Mortensen, Norway, editorial director Ernst G. Mortensen Forlag
Chair of the jury
  • Patricia Seppälä, Finland, managing director Lehtikuva Oy
Secretary of the jury
  • Vincent Mentzel, Photographer NRC Handelsblad

Portrait of the 1985 jury in the 2nd edition of Eyewitnes

Pablo Bartholomew discusses his winning photo with Ruud Taal, John Morris, Evert Brautigam, Paul Huf and Vincent Mentzel at a reception in the Indian Embassy in The Hague, April 1985 (© Roland de Bruin/GPD)

The Amsterdam Olympic Award, designed by Melanie Oudemans (© World Press Photo)

Cover 1985 yearbook (photos by David Burnett, Matthew Naytons, Jasmin Krpan)

1985 Amsterdam exhibition poster (photo by José Azel)