Reflection by executive director Joumana El Zein Khoury

The Role of World Press Photo Amidst Perilous Realities

As I write this essay, the judging process of the World Press Photo Contest global jury is underway. I am listening to the jury reviewing the events and discussing the images that have been submitted from around the world. This is always my favorite time of year. It’s exciting to have the privilege of diving into stories, seeing and hearing perspectives on events from the previous year. Often they are stories that haven’t made it into the global news. But I also find this time of year painful, as I am faced with how difficult, violent and sometimes horrendous our world can be. 

Unfortunately, 2023 is no exception. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we live in perilous times. It’s not just the suffering in regional wars that threaten to escalate, or domestic political conflicts that seem intractable, or even climate change that is increasingly more severe and destructive. Humankind has lived through crises before. Believe me, as the Director of an organization that has captured the history of news for 69 years, I know. But why do these times feel more perilous, more desperate? For me, the answer lies in a new rigidity, a dominance of fixed ideas, a failure, even a refusal, to understand others' perspectives: in sum, a disastrous lack of dialogue.

And that touches directly on what I see as the central role of World Press Photo: to showcase the work of photojournalists and documentary photographers and provide additional information to place their work in context. The goal is to create better understanding that can foster dialogue that breaks through polarization.

As a major and respected visual institution with a very wide reach around the world, World Press Photo does not take this task lightly. It is at the forefront of everything we do. Placing stories in context every year requires rigorous research and fact-checking. We are extremely mindful of the sensitivity of language and take great care with the wording of our captions and publications.

Since October 2023, the most difficult ongoing story for photojournalists is the Israel-Hamas war. Apart from the horrific humanitarian impact the war has had, this conflict also dramatically demonstrates the enormous pressure that photojournalism is under today. It has it all: huge obstacles to access, plus, for those journalists able to witness the war, mental anguish and the physical toll of being caught in a deadly conflict.
Today it is nearly impossible for foreign journalists to enter Gaza and report on the situation. Palestinian journalists in Gaza trying to document what is happening can’t escape risking their lives. As of 18 February, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 88 journalists and media workers have been killed: 83 Palestinian, 2 Israeli, and 3 Lebanese. 16 journalists were reported injured and 4 journalists were reported missing.

For us, as an organization that advocates photojournalism and documentary photography, the toll of this conflict is devastating. Gaza has the world’s attention right now, but there are many other situations around the world where journalists are putting themselves in danger in order to bring out realities that otherwise would go unseen. World Press Photo believes it is essential to highlight legitimate stories produced by professionals who take risks to report the stories that matter.

That faces us, as an organization not driven by breaking news, with the question of how in this searing news moment should we strive to be fair. Is it our role to show all sides of a situation? Is it our role to offer answers? Both are impossible tasks! Still fairness is our constant concern.

I’ve mentioned our efforts at contextualisation. For our contest, we engage juries that are diverse, professionals in their fields, who know the context of the region and who are independent in their judgements. They are asked to judge entries for their photographic qualities, compelling stories and visual impact. Ideology should not play a part. These independent jurors debate the merits of entries extensively. Their debates offer new ways of thinking for the rest of us, and we try to share those in the jury report and other formats.
While writing this essay, I do not know what the winning stories of 2024 will be. Regardless of the independent jury’s decision, I do know that World Press Photo is not here to take sides. I do know that we are not here to offer answers. ‘Balance' is an illusive and sometimes misleading goal, but we are not interested in photography whose purpose is propaganda. What we do - what we strive for - is to honor photographers who take risks to capture an important reality as they see it.

Each one of us comes with their own story, their own experience and their own biases. Each one of us may see reality differently. At World Press Photo we see that an impactful photo can open a closed mind. We know how personal stories can directly speak to universal experience. Perhaps we expect too much of visual images. Still, we hope that viewers can find the universal in the specific. Why? Because we believe that the universal can enable connection. We can’t offer solutions to these perilous times, but without a dialogue between competing realities, there will be no solution. Opening a space for that dialogue is our role.

Joumana El Zein Khoury
Executive director, World Press Photo