1990 Photo Contest in context

1989 was one of those years that stand out in history, providing journalists with an endless stream of tumultuous events to cover. In Europe, a wave of revolutions swept through the socialist countries of the Warsaw Pact, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, the death of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu on Christmas Day and the installation of human rights leader and playwright Vaclav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia.

At the same time, the Soviet Union began to show cracks when people in far-off republics took to the streets demanding autonomy. In Beijing, students occupied Tiananmen Square, the historical heart of the city, in protest of the government. After seven weeks of hunger strikes and massive demonstrations, China’s leaders ordered the army to suppress the protests. This led to unprecedented bloodshed on 4 June when tanks rolled onto the square accompanied by hundred of thousands of armed troops.

In Iran, 10 years after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini died, evoking a massive display of grief. While in Russia, hundreds of admirers accompanied Andrei Sakharov, physicist, human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to his last resting place. On the other side of the world, the United States invaded Panama after General Manuel Noriega declared the presidential elections of 7 May invalid and also declared war upon the United States. The Americans also had to battle the worst oil disaster in US history after the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground off the Alaskan coast, covering an area the size of New Jersey with a thick blanket of oil.

With such a wealth of excellent photos of momentous events to choose from, the 1990 World Press Photo Contest jury was facing a near-impossible task of selecting the World Press Photo of the Year. In the end, they chose an image with symbolic qualities. Michael Rand, chairman of the 1990 jury: “It was not obvious to the jury that Charlie Cole’s photograph Of Flesh and Steel would be chosen as the Press Photo of the Year. But it became the inevitable choice as we realized it symbolized the events of 1989. It is not violent, and yet the underlying threat is there. Taken with a long-focus lens, it is not very sharp. It has the luck of the photographer being in the right place at the right time. What it does express in the most simple, direct, and well-organized way is the ordinary man standing up to the might of repressive regime, an inspiration to others in subsequent protests throughout the world. It is a picture that will remain with us.”

As expected, the news pictures stood out so strongly in the 1990 contest that all other categories seemed to fade a little compared to them. In fact, the jury was unable to award any photos in the sports stories, arts, and happy news & humor categories. The latter being abolished altogether.

Entry statistics
  • 1280 photographers
  • 64 countries
  • 11043 pictures
  • 4528 black and white
  • 6515 color
1990 Photo Contest jury
  • Jean Dieuzaide, France, director Galérie du Château d'eau Toulouse
  • Sandra Eisert, USA, art director San José Mercury News
  • Jens Schetelich, East Germany, picture editor AND
  • Gennady Koposov, USSR, Photographer, picture editor Ogonyok
  • Peter Martens, the Netherlands, photographer
  • Pedro Meyer, Mexico, photographer
  • Grazia Neri, Italy, president Grazia Neri photo agency
  • Raghu Rai, India, Magnum photographer, picture editor India Today
Chair of the jury
  • Michael Rand, UK, art director Sunday Times Magazine
Secretary of the jury
  • Ruud Taal, Capital Photos

The 1990 World Press Photo jury, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1990 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

Jury members Pedro Meyer, Sandra Eisert, Raghu Rai and Michael Rand during judging, February 1990 (© Peter Denkema/Visual Group)

Jury members Grazia Neri (middle), Michael Rand, Jean Dieuzaide and Peter Martens discuss color entries, February 1990 (© Peter Denkema/Visual Group)

Jury members Ruud Taal, Jean Dieuzaide, Gennady Koposov, Jens Schetelich and Sandra Eisert, February 1990 (© Peter Denkema/Visual Group)

The children’s jury at work, Amsterdam, February 1990 (© Peter Denkema/Visualgroup)

The children’s jury presents Rosemary Kaul’s winning photo to the press (© Peter Denkema/Visualgroup)

Charlie Cole talks to a television crew in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, April 1990 (© Vincent Mentzel)

Charlie Cole and Hedy d’Ancona, Dutch Minister for Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs at the Awards Ceremony in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 26 April 1990 (© Unknown)

Rosemary Kaul receives the Children’s Award (© Unknown)

Charlie Cole’s Golden Eye Award, new design by Gijs Bakker (© Co de Kruijf)