Reflection by executive director Joumana El Zein Khoury

Is a photo contest still relevant?

It’s an uncomfortable question that I constantly ask myself, as the Executive Director of World Press Photo: Is a photo contest still relevant in a world where war and civil unrest are raging, where the environment is erupting in discontent in ways previously unimaginable, where women's rights have been rolled back to places we thought long passed, and where freedom of expression is being both abused and attacked, undermining reliable sources and leaving trustworthy press under threat?

In a time when many hallowed institutions seem to have outlived their purpose and effectiveness, what use does an organization like ours, with its 68 years of history, global network and access to an audience of millions serve by simply basing all of its work on awarding a limited number of photographers and their images? How do you decide which of the tens of thousands of stories and images that we receive are the ones that matter? How does a traditional tool such as a contest still make sense in an ever changing world? These are crucial existential questions. I’d like to take you through my reflections on them.

To begin: at World Press Photo Foundation everything works like clockwork: the reception of images from around the world, the selection procedure, the caption writing, forensic expertise, announcements of winners, yearbook publication, worldwide exhibitions and so much more. There are rules and procedures for every step that ensure, as much as possible, that all is carried out in a fair, transparent, ethical and respectful manner. The judging of the images is no different, except for the fact that we don’t control the process ourselves or limit it to an elite clique of experts. We entrust judging to an external, independent jury. A jury that changes every year, that comes with its own often diverse expertise, knowledge of the issues and context.

By deciding to place quality and representation as twins at the core of our organization, we acknowledge that representation has many different layers. Representation is not only about gender, age or race. It is about the community that you come from, the access that you, as a photographer, have to this specific story, or that you, as a viewer, have to be able to understand the specific story captured in this image. Representation is about the second and third degree meanings that you as a photographer have chosen to showcase in your image. Representation is about the care and sensitivities that you have shown in photographing this story and in showcasing it.

Many people say photography is an objective medium. It’s not. On the contrary, it is a subjective act that shows reality as seen through the eyes of a single photographer.

So is judging. Time and time again the judging process showed me that juries are made up of human beings. Along with vast knowledge about the events that comprise the past year's important stories in a region, each jury member also brings to the table their own visual preferences, professional and personal interests, and most of all, emotions, informed by their lived experiences and the experiences of other journalists and photographers fighting for press freedom around the world every day.

Looking at the list of 24 winners of 2023 one might ask why Ukraine has such a presence in the selection? Or why are there no stories about the protests following the reversal of Roe vs. Wade or the Uvalde shootings in the United States? And where are the stories about election protests in Kenya and Chad, or the departure of French troops from Mali? How can you call yourself World Press Photo when you don’t have all the important stories that happened in the world in 2022? But what one needs to realize is that sitting with the 24 final winners also means sitting with the subjectivities of 31 regional and global jury members, to understand how they made 24 final choices.

The selection of one story that matters over another is by no means an obvious, quick or easy decision. This year it was inspiring to witness the deep respect embodied by the jury members as they took on the difficult task of selecting winning projects, not only balancing visual criteria with the stories being told, but also always considering the impact that an award could make on the issues that people continue to face after a project is "finalized" and our entries are closed. I was deeply touched by the time and care that each project received. Juries were unanimous in their appreciation of the efforts taken by photographers to get more eyes viewing their work, more minds digesting the struggle, and the resilience and creativity of those being pictured.

So the World Press Photo winning stories and images will never depict all the important stories that happened around the world, but they do showcase a balance of stories in the different regions that the 2023 juries thought were important to award for their quality, sensitivity, courage, innovativeness, uniqueness, importance, dedication and so much more. And, they will certainly lead to reflection and debates. And that is the crux of the matter: stimulating reflection and debate is the main aim of World Press Photo’s contest.

As an organization, our task is to be the bridge between the photojournalism / documentary photography industry and the general public. A friend once told me that I should not think about World Press Photo as a contest organization but as a major media organizations. Once a photographer wins the contest, their image and story are potentially seen by billions of people around the world and will remain in the World Press Photo Foundation archive for future generations to reflect on.

There is more to what we do: With our Open Format category we have extended our reach to new forms of journalistic expression that give a different access to important events around the world. Innovating within our contest has allowed us to respond to experimentation and gives photographers latitude to be expressive in a more collaborative visual language, integrating journalistic storytelling with technology, art and tradition. The high caliber of entries after only two years of the Open Format category fills me with excitement and anticipation of what future entries will hold. Our contest can also be a window to the future.

So when I ask myself if a contest is still relevant in today’s world, I find the answer isn’t straightforward. But what I can say is that by focusing on awarding photographers and their stories and bringing them to a vast international public, we are taking them on a second leg of their journey. In a year where globally 58 journalists were killed and many more attacked and imprisoned, the risks that they take are palpable. Our contest draws attention to that fact. Our role is to ensure that the best of their work and stories are viewed by as many people in as many places as possible. Our contest honors their courage. There may be other ways to do that, but the World Press Photo Contest contributes to a better understanding and even engagement in other parts of the world with the essential issues and events photojournalists and documentary photographers witness. So in the end, my answer is an emphatic yes! Our photo contest is still important and relevant. 

Joumana El Zein Khoury
Executive director, World Press Photo