1987 Photo Contest in context

In 1986, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which had been spreading quickly around the world since the late 1970s, was given a face: that of Kenneth Meeks.

Alon Reininger’s haunting portrait of Meeks, dying of AIDS, his skin marked by lesions, was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year 1986. As the jury put it, 1986 was the year when mankind began to accept the social and medical implications of the virus and tried to do something about it.

For the first time, it was an image of an important social issue that would affect the entire world that became World Press Photo of the Year, and not a picture of a breaking news moment. And there were many of those moments in 1986, such as the overthrow of the Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s regime in Haiti, the US space shuttle Challenger disaster, violent demonstrations in South Korea, the return of dissident Andrei Sakharov to Moscow, the Reykjavik Summit, the mysterious but deadly eruption of Lake Nyos in Cameroon, and the explosion of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The Chernobyl disaster became a turning point in the World Press Photo Contest. Until then, photographers from the Soviet Union and other countries behind the Iron Curtain almost never submitted photographs of accidents, disasters, and other sensitive issues or events that occurred in their countries. They excelled in the sports, nature, arts, sciences and happy news categories. However, the far-reaching consequences of the disaster were too great to be ignored by the Soviet authorities. In the 1987 contest, two of the very few Russian photographers admitted to the exploded nuclear reactor in Chernobyl were awarded for their pictures. Both had been working for the official press agencies, one for RIA Novosti and the other for ITAR-TASS.

Entry statistics
  • 967 photographers
  • 54 countries
  • 6765 pictures
  • 2855 black and white
  • 3910 color
1987 Photo Contest jury
  • Arnold Drapkin, USA, picture editor Time Magazine
  • Lucjan Fogiel, Poland, photographer
  • Robert Lebeck, West Germany, staff photographer Stern
  • Erich Lessing, Austria, photographer
  • Claudine Maugendre, France, picture editor Actuel
  • Vincent Mentzel, the Netherlands, staff photographer NRC Handelsblad
  • Bas Vroege, the Netherlands, editor Perspektief Magazine
  • Vladimir Vyatkin, USSR, staff photographer Novosti Press Agency
Chair of the jury
  • Colin Jacobson, UK, picture editor The Observer Magazine
Secretary of the jury
  • Ruud Taal, Capital Photos

The 1987 World Press Photo jury, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1987 (© Ruud Taal/Captial Photos)

The jury is voting, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1987 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

The jury judging the color slides, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1987 (© Unknown)

The Children’s Jury, Amsterdam, February 1987 (© O.H. Rockener/ANP)

A member of the Children’s Jury at work, Volkskrantgebouw, Amsterdam, February 1987 (© Unknown)

Alon Reininger and Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek at the Awards Ceremony in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 16 April 1987 (© Frans van der Linde/ANP)

Cover 1987 yearbook (photos by Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey, Fred Sisson, David Turnley)