1986 Photo Contest in context

In November 1985, the Nevado del Ruíz volcano in Colombia erupted, producing a fast-flowing sea of mud and debris which swallowed the town of Armero and killed 25,000 people. A 13-year-old girl named Omayra Sanchez became the tragic symbol of the authorities’ inability to set up an effective rescue operation.

Surrounded by powerless rescue workers and journalists, including a television crew, she died trapped in the water and debris of her own house. French photographer Frank Fournier also witnessed the scene and made a heartrending portrait of Omayra, which became World Press Photo of the Year 1985.

Fournier’s photos of Omayra Sanchez’s final hours disturbed many people who saw them. They were shocked that her agony and subsequent death could be recorded, but that no one had been able to rescue her. The images also evoked a debate about the role of the photographer—reporter or rescue worker?—in these situations and about his or her integrity. Some wondered if the photo would have attracted as much attention if the girl had lived and whether the event itself had been awarded, rather than the photo. As Fournier later relayed, he felt the story was important to report and that he was happy that the image generated so much response, as it would have been worse if no one had cared about it.

Another iconic event also took place in November 1985: in Geneva, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan met for the first time, laying the foundation for dialogue in the future. As the tensions between East and West seemed to ease a little, the Hungarian Tourist Board began to sponsor a new World Press Photo award, the Budapest Award, in honor of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt who died in 1886. Although the prize was initially intended for pictures that best expressed the idea of music and its important role in culture and everyday life, it quickly became a prize for photos that depicted the importance of human relations, “in terms of positive, unifying contacts between people which illustrate in a convincing and stimulating way that we all belong to the family of man.” The prize was last awarded in 1993.

In the 1986 yearbook, jury member Christian Caujolle signaled that photojournalists had to work in a changing professional environment, which had a profound influence on their professional attitude and photographic style. Newspapers had become more specialized and sophisticated in their strategies. The picture magazines, which had provided the armchair traveler with a window on the world, had to reinvent themselves now that their readers could actually hop on a plane to travel the world. “The photographer is no longer merely the witness—albeit a privileged one—of an event,” Caujolle wrote, “He no longer merely works on a subject, a publication or a cause. He has become the author, who affirms opinions by using the bias of his aesthetic choices.”

Entry statistics
  • 867 photographers
  • 55 countries
  • 5398 pictures
  • 2759 black and white
  • 2639 color
1986 Photo Contest jury
  • Marion Schut-Koelemij, the Netherlands, director Transworld Features Holland
  • Istvan Bara, Hungary, managing director MTI
  • Bryn Campbell, UK, picture editor Illustrated London News
  • Howard Chapnick, USA, president Black Star
  • Christian Caujolle, France, picture editor Libération, director VU Agency
  • Yuri Golovjatenko, USSR, chief editor Novosti Press Agency
  • Sigurd Hennum, Norway, managing editor Aftenposten
  • Wee Beng Huat, Singapore, group picture editor Straits Times
Chair of the jury
  • Dieter Steiner, West Germany, US correspondent Stern

    The 1986 jury, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1986 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

    Frank Fournier at the Awards Ceremony in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 3 April 1986 (© Dick Coersen/ANP)

    Frank Fournier at the Awards Ceremony in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 3 April 1986 (© Dick Coersen/ANP)

    Cover 1986 yearbook (Photos by Randy Taylor, David Turnley, Mary Ellen Mark, Alfred Yaghobzadeh)

    1986 Amsterdam exhibition poster (photo by David Parker)