A message from the executive director, Joumana El Zein Khoury

Thoughts on my first 100 days

In 1933, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a radio address reflecting on his first 100 days in office. It became a tradition for presidents that followed him to assess, and to be assessed, on how they got off to a start in their first three plus months on the job. Without making any pretentious comparisons between myself and American presidents, I find it useful to stop for a moment and reflect on my own 100 days as the new executive director of the World Press Photo Foundation; to think not only about all that has been accomplished in that short time, but even more, to consider what I have learned, and where we - World Press Photo - should be going.

On 1 February 2021, when I started, it felt like I had jumped onto a fast moving ship. It was the busiest time of the year for the foundation. During my first month I was immediately drawn into the core of the World Press Photo Contests when I attended the jury discussions to choose the best images, stories, and digital productions of 2020. Judging the various contests soon wrapped up, followed by the announcement of the winners, the award ceremony and the festival, organizing exhibitions and producing the yearbook. I was impressed with the work of the Foundation and the commitment of the team, and, most of all, I was moved by the stories. I’m not alone: these stories move people all over the world.

This year’s winners’ announcement received media coverage across the globe, while the awards show and the festival – which took place entirely online – were seen by over 12,000 people worldwide. In normal times, an estimated 4 million people go to see the World Press Photo exhibitions when they come to their region each year. As of May, we have already confirmed 85 exhibitions worldwide for 2021, including Sulaymaniyah, Iraq;  Taipei, Taiwan; Mexico City, Mexico; and Kigali, Rwanda, to name a few. We also hope to open our flagship exhibition at De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam as soon as COVID-19 restrictions allow. This shows the worldwide impact World Press Photo has. This is the power of visual storytelling!

It’s clear that despite Covid restrictions there have been many successes during my first 100 days, most of the credit going to my hard working team. It has also been a very steep learning curve for me. The world is still in the grip of a pandemic that has thrown many things into question. We are facing an uncertain future and I quickly realized it wouldn’t be easy to decide what the best course for this very impressive ship should be. So I decided to reach out.

I first wanted to hear how World Press Photo staff, the people most engaged, viewed the role of our organization, what challenges they saw and how they thought we should go forward. I spoke to every single one of them – from the long-serving staff member, to the consultant, the freelancer, the intern. I then talked with people outside, in the larger community, critics and supporters: visual storytellers, educators, photo-editors, media professionals and partners. I asked some fundamental questions, even down to the meanings of words like photo, press, and world in our current global context, because their meanings are changing. I was struck by the willingness of everyone to engage and I was touched by people’s openness, honesty and forthrightness.

In these discussions, our challenges came into clearer focus. Since its founding in 1955 when a group of Dutch photographers started an international competition to expose their work globally, media and technology have undergone massive changes that have affected the very nature of journalism. To name some major ones: there is a higher value placed on aesthetics. A lot of visual imagery is now produced by photographers who are not solely journalists. There is a greater demand for opinion; neutrality is no longer a marketable good. Fewer and fewer people rely solely on traditional news media for their information. There is a growing distrust of news media in general. In some countries big media houses are completely controlled by the government. In others, they are criticized for a lack of proportion in their choices of imagery, voices and the way news stories are presented. A new generation of visual storytellers has grown up with many more options for outlets than their predecessors.

Over the decades, World Press Photo has grown and adapted, expanding its reach with activities to guide new visual journalists and to become more inclusive. But we have to do more. The entries in the World Press Photo contests present a kaleidoscope of realities in the lives of people around the world. Among those realities are the major social movements of our times. We must decide where we stand on those and what responses are appropriate.

To remain relevant, we need to project where developments are leading and to anticipate how we can play a significant role. We need a critical examination of our own rules and procedures and to make some bold choices. Together, we have already begun this process. We are now defining a new strategy for the next 5 years.

So, in short, at the close of my first dizzying 100 days, I find myself engaged in an exciting project, committed to strengthening World Press Photo’s profound global impact.

Joumana El Zein Khoury
Executive director
World Press Photo Foundation

Open call for reactions: help us define the future of the World Press Photo Foundation. Share your thoughts with us and tell us how you think we should stay relevant.