Photo sequences

by World Press Photo

On 11 September 2001, Robert Clark made a haunting sequence of the second plane approaching and hitting the World Trade Center’s South Tower, after the first hijacked plane had hit the North Tower 20 minutes earlier.

The sequence showed in slow motion what had actually happened in two seconds, each of the four frames making a lasting impression.


More than 120 years before, in 1878, Eadweard Muybridge was the first to capture a sequence of movement, when he photographed a galloping horse by using 12 interconnected large glass-plate cameras. The experiment laid the foundation for the first motion pictures, while technical developments in the 20th century made it possible to create photo sequences using just one camera. Especially the motor drive, a powered film transport mechanism invented in the late 1960s, made photographing faster and more efficient.

Between 1973 and 1981, World Press Photo had a separate category for photo sequences. It was initially introduced by the jury of the 1968/69 contest. Board members were hesitant, though, to maintain the category, as they considered photo sequences to be more the result of a technique than of a photographic vision. Nevertheless, the category was reintroduced in 1973 to create a distinction between photo sequences and picture stories. Unlike a ‘regular’ photo story, which may be created over a longer period and on different locations, a photo sequence spans a very short time and is shot on one location, and often from the same angle.

Motor drive

Although the winning pictures display a varied result, it was indeed the technical aspect that made the category eventually obsolete. In 1979, World Press Photo’s chairman Joop Swart remarked in an interview with De Journalist that “the robot-like photographer” was disappearing. One year later, all three awards were given to sequences of car and motor cycle crashes, a decision which was received critically by the press. Patricia Seppälä, member of the 1981 jury, expressed her worry about the extensive use of the motor drive in an interview (De Journalist): “Less brains. The camera is being focused on a subject and only photographs from that particular point. A photographer who makes a sequence in the ‘old-fashioned’ way, often chooses a slightly different angle for every picture. That makes the result more interesting.”

Since the early years of World Press Photo, photo sequences have been frequently awarded outside this category as well. Most recently in 2014, when Goran Tomasevic received first prize for his spot news story about Syrian rebels attacking a government checkpoint. Several World Press Photos of the Year were actually chosen from a sequence: those by Helmuth Pirath (1956), Héctor Rondón Lovera (1962), Wolfgang Peter Geller (1972), and Stanley Forman (1976), for example. The sequences were awarded as well. In 1990, Charlie Cole’s image of a lonely demonstrator confronting a tank on Tiananmen Square became World Press Photo of the Year 1989, while Stuart Franklin received a prize for a sequence of the same event. In quite another realm, that of sports, David Burnett was awarded for his portrait of American athlete Mary Decker after her fall during the 3,000-meter finals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, whereas Bruce Chambers’ sequence of this heavily disputed event received second prize.

Narrative sequence

These are narrative sequences, in which the story prevails over the recording of movement. Spine-chilling and sometimes heart-rendering are those in which the photographer witnessed a violent confrontation, assassination, or rescue operation in front of the camera. There are many examples in the World Press Photo contest, to name but a few: the death of a Colombian mutineer recorded by Julio Florez Angel in 1962, the lynching of presumed collaborators during a political rally in Bangladesh witnessed by Horst Faas and Michel Laurent in 1971, and the failed rescue of an earthquake victim in Osoppo, Italy, photographed by Bryan Wharton in 1988.


Many action sequences can be found among the winning images as well, especially in sports. Some of them picture a quick maneuver or spectacular movement, including many incidents and accidents with horses and racecars. Others show the slow changes in a near-similar scene or an observation of small but remarkable incident. Incidentally, photomontages of action sequences have been awarded, such as the picture by Ulrich Kohls of the 100m hurdles for women at the 1972 Summer Olympics and Alain Ernoult’s 1985 portrait of a boomerang thrower 1985.

Robert Clark

Charles Robinson

Dieter Baumann

Goran Tomasevic

Helmuth Pirath

Héctor Rondón Lovera

Wolfgang Peter Geller

Stanley Forman

Stuart Franklin

Bruce Chambers

Julio Florez Angel

Horst Faas & Michel Laurent

Bryan Wharton

Ulrich Kohls

Alain Ernoult