History

History of the annual World Press Photo Contest

Growth of the contest

The first World Press Photo award, back in 1955, came about when some members of the Dutch photojournalists’ union (Nederlandse Vereniging van Fotojournalisten, NVF) had the idea of turning a national competition — the Zilveren Camera — into an international one. The new international contest marked the 25th anniversary of the NVF, with a public exhibition to be held in December 1955. Almost immediately, the step was taken from organizing a one-off event to creating an annual contest – and one has been held almost every year since then. Since that very first contest, winning photographs have been put together into an exhibition.

In 1955, 42 photographers from 11 countries submitted just over 300 photographs for judging. The following year the number of entrants quadrupled, with nearly double the nationalities. The 1960s saw a slow but steady growth in both participants and the range of countries they came from. For many years the contest drew entries from 40 to 50 different countries, breaking the 60-barrier during a surge in the late 1980s. There was an even larger growth spurt during the 1990s, with 1,280 photographers from 64 countries entering 11,043 photos at the beginning of the decade increasing to 3,733 photographers of 116 nationalities and 36,836 photos in 1999.
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However, there is still an imbalance in representation among entrants, stories and winners. In 2021, of the over 4,000 photographers from 130 countries who entered the World Press Photo Contest: 48% came from Europe, 22% came from Asia and 14% came from North and Central America, but only 7% of the entries were from South America, 5% from Southeast Asia and Oceania, and only 3% came from the whole continent of Africa.

Also in the 2021 Photo Contest, in total, 80% of entrants identify as male, 19% identify as female, and 1% prefer not to say or identify with another gender. In 2015, the proportion of female entrants was 15%. Although there has been an increase over the past five years, this remains a factor we would like to address.

Therefore, as a step towards increasing the level of international representation, the 2022 World Press Photo Contest will work with a regional system that includes six regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, North and Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia and Oceania. Photographs and stories will be judged first by a regional jury according to the region in which they were shot. In order to help address the gender imbalance, we will also reveal the gender of entrants to the jury at a later stage of the judging process. More information about this can be found here

Categories

Over the years, the categories into which photos were grouped in the contest have evolved. This growth in categories has been organic — a change that reflected how the media presented images to the public. The contest has been a mechanism for collecting the strongest photographs of each year — not a holy template of style, but the mirror of a process of development. The World Press Photo archive reveals this development in its entirety.

At first, there were just a few divisions: News and Sports containing single photographs, and the specific designations Features and Picture Stories for photo stories. From 1965, there was a separate section for color photographs. In the 1970s, a new phase became evident, when Features split into News Features and General Features. This movement culminated in 1975 with the establishment of ten named categories. Category names, focus and classifications have changed over the decades, and the 2022 contest once again shifts, this time in a totally new direction — to be more globally representative with four format-based categories: Singles, Stories, Long-Term Projects, and Open Format, per each of the six global regions.

Occasionally, a photograph that does not meet contest criteria of being taken by a photojournalist within a professional context was given a special mention. This happened when the jury nominated an image without which the visual record of a year is held to be incomplete. The first photo to be given a special mention was one of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the moon.

Jury and prizes

The first contest catalyzed discussion in local newspapers about the nature of press photography; later images sparked even more furious debate. Political controversy also made an early appearance. Then as now, World Press Photo set a great store by maintaining its neutrality. An independent international jury is composed each year to judge contest submissions.

The first jury comprised just five members, from the United Kingdom, West Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but 1956 already saw the first Eastern Bloc member on the panel. Throughout the Cold War both Russians and Americans sat on the jury — their votes usually balancing each other out. By the end of the decade, the number of jury members had climbed to nine, from seven different countries. In the 1960s, separate juries were formed from time to time to judge sports photos, choose the leading Dutch photo, or the ‘most artistic photo’, but in the 1970s all judging was once again consolidated in a single panel. The exception (from 1984 to 2003) was a special Children’s Jury, made up of schoolchildren from around the world, which awarded its own prize.

These days, jurists come from across the globe, from all manner of religious, economic and political backgrounds. The composition of the jury — from all aspects of the profession — changes from year to year. To go alongside the regional model of the 2022 contest, the 2022 jury will be split into regional juries, each composed of professionals from and/or working in that region. Once the regional jury has made a selection of entries per region, a global jury will decide on the regional winners and from those the global winners. A breakdown of successive juries is included on the Contest facts page from each year.

In previous years, in addition to the World Press Photo of the Year, first, second and third prizes were awarded for single photos and stories in each of the contest categories. Over the decades, there have also been one-off prizes, such as the Woman in View prize, awarded in 1975, the United Nations’ Women’s Year, and longer-running special awards, such as a Public’s favorite and the Novosti/TASS Prize for the best photograph on the subject of ‘peace, progress and humanism’. For the first time in 2022, we will award regional winners and global winners.

Today, World Press Photo finds itself in the position where it not only runs the world’s most prestigious contest of photojournalism, but administers the world’s widest-ranging annual photo exhibition and offers a breadth of related activities that is unmatched. With each year, an evaluation of the contest brings about adjustments and expansions that build upon the existing structure, such as the use of specialized juries in 2010 and shifting towards a regional model in 2022. This dynamic approach ensures that the contest continues to grow and evolve alongside the profession.