1991 Photo Contest in context

In 1990, the opening-up of Central and Eastern Europe, after the Iron Curtain came down, led to profound shifts in political and social relations. In Poland, former trade union leader and activist Lech Walesa won the presidential elections, East and West Germany were reunited, and in the Soviet Union the demand for democratic reforms became louder and louder.

The impact of communism on daily life in Eastern Europe became visible to the outside world as well. News reports and photos revealed intense poverty and heavily polluted industrial areas where people were living in unhealthy, sometimes even life-threatening, circumstances. Photos of inhospitable Romanian orphanages full of undernourished children, dying from AIDS, shocked the world.

The World Press Photo of the Year, showing the grieving widow of an ethnic-Albanian protester in Kosovo who had been killed in a demonstration, announced the impending disintegration of Yugoslavia. But only few could foresee the horrors of the war that was to come. The jury was even criticized for awarding a photo of what was then considered a minor news event. In this light, the words of Christian Caujolle, chairman of 1991 World Press Photo jury, in the 1991 yearbook sound prophetic: “… the situation of the Albanian minority in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, has for decades been a burning issue which may well become a major problem in Europe now the Cold war has ended: what to do with the frontiers of the Balkan states with all their different ethnic minorities and communities separated by decrees of state.”

Contrary to the situation in Kosovo, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 dominated the international headlines for months on end. Photos showed thousands of refugees who had fled into the desert to escape the atrocities of the Iraqi troops. The mobilization of US troops and their allies in Saudi Arabia and the subsequent invasion could be followed hour-by-hour on the television, a development deplored by the 1991 jury, as “press photographers were forced to look on helplessly while television became the prime visual medium for informing the public.” How restricted journalists had been in their coverage of the Gulf War became clear only one year later.

Because of its importance, the jury chose to give a special mention to a reportage of the execution in July 1989 of Chinese ‘counter revolutionaries’, accused of setting trucks on fire during the student protests in Tiananmen Square. It had not been included in the 1990 yearbook, as the pictures only reached the West in 1990, where the Independent magazine published it in June 1990.

Entry statistics
  • 1390 photographers
  • 61 countries
  • 11521 pictures
  • 3650 black and white
  • 7871 color
1991 Photo Contest jury
  • Zevi Ghivelder, Brazil, director Manchete
  • David Goldblatt, South Africa, photographer
  • Vincent Mentzel, the Netherlands, staff photographer NRC Handelsblad
  • Randy Miller, USA, deputy managing editor Detroit Free Press
  • Daniela Mrázková, Czechoslovakia, editor Photography Magazine
  • Kasumiko Murakami, Japan, editor in chief Magazine House Paris
  • Raghu Rai, India, Magnum photographer
  • Vladimir Vyatkin, USSR, photographer Novosti
Chair of the jury
  • Christian Caujolle, France, director Agence VU
Secretary of the jury
  • Ruud Taal, photographer Capital Photos

The 1991 World Press Photo jury, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1991 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

Jury member David Goldblatt during the preview, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1991 (© Peter Denkema/Visualgroup)

The jury at work, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1991 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

The jury at work, KLM Headquarters, Amstelveen, February 1991 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

Members of the children’s jury present Joanne Rathe’s winning photo to the press, Amsterdam, February 1991 (© ANP)

Georges Merillon and Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers at the Awards Ceremony in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 29 April 1991 (© Ruud Taal/Capital Photos)

The Golden Eye Award of Georges Merillon (© Peter Denkema/Visualgroup)

Cover 1991 yearbook (photo by Hans Gedda)