A message from the executive director, Joumana El Zein Khoury

Focusing on the "World" in World Press Photo

World. Press. Photo.
That’s us.
What does it mean, those three words?

That was the first question I asked when I started work as executive director last winter. It was at the core of an ongoing discussion with staff and many others. In a changing world, what does it mean to be the World Press Photo Foundation? What kind of an organization do we want to be? The question led us in various directions. 

Where we come from

An old aphorism says to know where you’re going, you have to know where you come from.

So we thought about the Dutch photographers who set up World Press Photo in 1955. They wanted to bring world attention to their work. It was a bit of a radical idea in their time for photographers from a small northern European country to want to profile their work "worldwide". The photos of the founders, seen today, don’t tell a very radical story; they show a group of middle-aged, white men, deciding whose work was important. It was a breakthrough at the time and without their vision our organization would not exist. Still, those photos are certainly no longer the image of who or how we want to be today.

To their credit, the founders got the "world" part right - the idea that stories told by photojournalists deserve telling to a global audience.

Why we need to change

Thinking about our founders and how the world has changed brought us to the question of what kind of organization the world needs us to be. Much is written about the divisiveness of the world today. How can we be a counter to that, be a part of the solution and not a contributor to the problem?

For me, the answer was simple. Good organizations should be like good people: they should be purposeful, open, generous, caring and humble. So if our purpose now is to show the stories that matter to the whole world, how should we be doing it? We thought, we talked, we listened.

For the past decade or more, various social movements have brought to light inequities and social injustice. They are often the stories that are told in our contest submissions. But who gets to tell those stories? And what do the other stories look like, of daily life, the struggles and triumphs of people as they experience it themselves?

We’ve been concerned for some time about the imbalance in our contest entries.

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. It’s not because there are significantly fewer photographers in those places than elsewhere. When I asked a regional partner why, I was told, ‘They don’t think the competition is for them. They don’t see themselves in the entries, don’t feel represented.’

That has to change.

We’ve been making slow progress in some areas. In 2015, the percentage of entrants identifying as female was 15%. In 2021, it had increased to 19%.

We can do better than this!

A contest for the world

Our juries have to be even more representative of the different regions. We want them to understand why stories are important to the people in them and affected by them. The first criteria remain quality and relevance, but the judgement of what’s "newsworthy" is complex. The only logical solution for us was to make our competitions more regional with stories from the region being judged first by jurors with a deep connection to that region. And we are adapting some of our judging rules. So although judges won’t know who the photographers are, they will have more information that places the photographer in context.

Ultimately, what we aim for is a fair mix of views from both inside and outside a situation that all contribute to a truthful and insightful understanding. We want those views to be shared widely with people in the region as well as with audiences elsewhere, and we’ll do that through a greater presence in the regions, with more exhibitions in currently underserved countries, but also actively through our social media channels.

Our commitment to press and photography

So far, I’ve focused on how we want to live up to the "world" part of our name.

Then there are the two words that are continually evolving with new technology: "press" and "photo". In the era of our founders, press meant newspapers, and press photographers normally photographed for a (news) publication that was printed. Nowadays, there are a variety of "platforms", usually no paper involved. Many photojournalists are under threat, their work regularly censored. Not only the options, but also the consequences of publication for an individual photographer can be very different from region to region.

Finally, and with all of this in mind, we are re-confirming our focus on photography by being faithful to the original concept of a still photo while allowing for other possibilities. This includes an open format category that welcomes a range and/or mixture of storytelling mediums, as long as the core of the entry is still photograph-based. This new category will keep us informed of the ways photojournalists are experimenting and how technology is evolving. 

Doing and learning

That’s a brief explanation of the changes we’re making at World Press Photo. We will need to assess how well all of this works. We’ll keep listening to feedback and improving.

To help us continue to improve and stay globally relevant, we will be working with an International Advisory Committee that is already up and running.

I believe this new strategy is not a change in what we aspire to, but a shift in how we get there. We feel we are going in a direction where we were already headed, but with more depth, more vigor, and a firmer commitment. This is not just superficial. These are changes we really believe in.

We want the world in World Press Photo to be truly representative, with voices that come from everywhere and are heard and respected everywhere.

We hope you’ll all be watching!

Joumana El Zein Khoury
Executive director
World Press Photo Foundation