World War II

by World Press Photo

World War II (1939-1945) ended officially 10 years before World Press Photo was founded. However, the impact of the war, which devastated Asia and Europe, killed many millions of people and caused inconceivable suffering, left its visible mark on the contest’s results for many years afterwards.

For the last German prisoners of war to be released by the Soviet Union, photographed by Helmuth Pirath, the war did not end in 1945 but in 1956. His photo of the tearful reunion of one of the Spätheimkehrer—late home-comers—became the second World Press Photo of the Year.


World War II veterans return regularly in the winning pictures. Peter Martens and Ivan Kurtov photographed, in 1977 and 1989 respectively, how veterans coped with their physical disabilities many years later, some more cheerfully than others. In 2005, Martin Roemers portrayed World War II veterans from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the UK and the USA, who came together at ceremonies across Europe to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the war. His intense portraits of these men and women, showing the war’s physical and emotional scars in their faces, brought together in his book aptly called The Never-Ending War, earned him a second prize in the Portraits category of the 2006 World Press Photo Contest. In quite another way, Emile Luider’s winning story about Rotterdam is also about scars. His pictures show how the Dutch city, which was razed to the ground by German bombs in May 1940, has rebuilt itself.


On many occasions, World War II became news again. For example in 1987, when Klaus Barbie, former head of the Gestapo, the German Secret State Police, in Lyon, received a life sentence for Nazi war crimes. Peter Turnley photographed the aging and handcuffed ‘butcher of Lyon’ in the courtroom. Worries about war crimes becoming barred by limitation were on Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s mind when Floris Bergkamp portrayed him in 1979. And the official European tour by the Japanese emperor Hirohito in 1971 was certainly considered an important news event, as he was the first reigning Japanese monarch to visit abroad. In Cologne, Germany, he was met by 300 journalists. Perhaps less so in Germany, but in many other European countries, Emperor Hirohito’s visits were highly controversial and met by protests because of the atrocities committed in his name by the Japanese occupying forces during World War II.


More recently, winning photographers have concentrated on the way World War II is being remembered. In 2007, Oded Balilty made a photo story about the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre, the violent period that followed the Japanese conquest of the city in 1937 preceding World War II. Seventy years later, the event still strains political and economic relations between China and Japan while, at the same time, they are becoming increasingly close trading partners. Roger Cremers’ prize-winning photo story shows tourist behavior in former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial, museum and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Poland. In his work, he focuses on the tension between the dark chapters of the past and the way they are remembered or relived in the present.

Helmuth Pirath

Peter Martens

Ivan Kurtov

Martin Roemers

Emile Luider

Peter Turnley

Floris Bergkamp

Manfred Rademacher

Oded Balilty

Roger Cremers