Reflections on the World Press Photo online archive

Balancing ethics and legacy

Since 1955, World Press Photo has helped preserve moments of history photographed by winners of its annual competition. We have remained a trusted source of information, operating in the public interest. A fundamental aspect of our mission is to preserve and share this rich history within our extensive online archive, featuring a collection of World Press Photo Contest-winning images dating back to its origins.

Preserving, sharing, and fostering discourse around these historical records is a fundamental part of our mission. However, this role carries with it a responsibility to reevaluate how stories have traditionally been told through our contest. We ask ourselves important questions: What stories mattered in a particular year and why? What were deemed to be the most newsworthy world events and how were they documented? What voices dominated the contest, and whose voices were excluded? Why did it take over 20 years for a woman photographer to be awarded the Photo of the Year?

To address these inquiries, we must first acknowledge that our online archive represents a subjective selection. What is included here (and what is excluded) is the result of decisions made by jury members throughout the years–decisions that were thoughtful and informed, but also subject to the biases of the time and perspectives of the people who made up the jury.

We recognize that the majority of the photographs and stories in our archive represent a white, cis, male, Western perspective, which echoes the patriarchal structure that has long dominated the photojournalism industry. Over the years, certain communities, especially those in the majority world, have oftentimes been portrayed from an outsider's lens, perpetuating harmful stereotypes that influence our perception of these communities. Our archive mirrors this historical bias, and we have a responsibility to contextualize and make this reality visible.

Online archive review

A collection of the World Press Photo Contest awarded images is available online on our website, but for a long time this collection has been incomplete and often lacked appropriate context. In line with our 2021 strategy aimed at showcasing diverse stories and global perspectives, we initiated a comprehensive review of our public online archive in September 2022. Our aim is to look critically at the last seven decades of photojournalism and to have relevant discussions about the way history was documented. But before we did that we needed to understand the contents of the online archive, and to look at the photographs that were awarded in our contest through a critical lens. This review was guided by ethical considerations, and two researchers were hired to examine the archive's contents, identifying points of attention and discussion.

During this process, we confronted the challenge of looking at over 15,000 photographs, many of which depicted traumatic events and replicated harmful stereotypes. This work was at times emotionally difficult for our researchers, and it offered an insightful perspective on the impact of graphic imagery in photojournalism.

One of the researchers noted during the process:

"Analyzing some of the most disturbing and unfortunate situations imaginable exacts a toll on one's mental and physical well-being. As an African woman conducting this work in Conakry, Guinea, I found myself deeply affected by images depicting graphic violence, which wove a narrative about insecurity on the continent, often through the portrayal of armed individuals. Throughout this process, I couldn't help but notice how these images evoked a sense of fear and mistrust within me. It's with a heavy heart that I admit these recurring narratives of brutal violence could have such a profound impact on my perception of a region where I've spent the majority of my life. Simultaneously, this experience highlights the pervasive nature of graphic violence in shaping our attitudes and reinforcing fear, even towards individuals we regularly interact with and relate to."

Without proper contextualization, we realized, there could not be an opportunity to connect the world to important stories and create mutual understanding, which is our core mission. Additionally, we came to understand that it was necessary for us to uphold ethical, trauma-informed archiving practices and ensure respect for the rights of the individuals portrayed in the photographs.

Focus on the depiction of children

Following this review and many lengthy conversations about the contents of the online archive, the organization started a process to address those photographs depicting child nudity due to their sensitivity and the urgent concerns they raised. This was especially relevant as some images identified child survivors of sexual exploitation, which conflicted with principles outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The process included extensive research and a consultation process with peer organizations and ethics experts, as well as many internal conversations that proved to be as difficult and multi-layered as the initial process we undertook to identify these images. Some questions we asked ourselves were: What does photographing someone with “dignity” really mean? How do we ensure we are not exposing a child to risk? What does informed consent really mean? Are we exposing children to unnecessary risks when reproducing and sharing their photos online? Do we know what repercussions — physical, social, legal, economic — they or their families may experience? Were different ethical standards applied depending on the race, ethnicity, nationality, location, gender, or class of the child?

The group decided a blanket approach was necessary here, especially since we are dealing with such a vulnerable group of people. Access to photographs containing identifiable nude children will be restricted from public view and available on request only for research purposes, in all cases where consent isn’t confirmed. Where practically possible, we should ensure that informed consent is sought and given by children and their trusted guardians for the publication of their photograph in the World Press Photo online archive. In cases where children have been sexually abused or exploited, it is vital that their identity is protected. We will verify consent and that permissions have been secured on a case-by-case basis with each photographer and act accordingly.

A well-known example that might clarify this approach is the photograph depicting Phan Thi Kim Phuc running without clothes with other children after South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. This photograph by Nick Ut for the Associated Press became a symbol of the horrors of the Vietnam War. As she grew up, Phan Thi Kim Phuc publicly expressed the importance of that picture, even though it was taken at a moment when she was in an extremely vulnerable position.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, she said: “I didn't like that picture at all. [In the moment] I felt ‘why did he take my picture when I was in agony, naked, so ugly? I wished that the picture wasn't taken.’ (...) [Now] I am so proud of that picture, and I consider it a really powerful gift for me to use it to work for peace."

Based on her comments, we feel it is important to have this photograph visible and accessible in our online archive. But unfortunately, with other photographs, we aren’t able to confirm consent and have decided to restrict access to them as a precautionary measure. Additionally, we will be adding some links and information to some photographs to expand the context.

This decision is not intended as criticism of any specific photographer’s work, or jury’s decision. As a global photojournalism organization, we recognize the importance of sharing important stories, but also the significance of the selection process in shaping how events are portrayed in historical memory.
The results were implemented in November 2023, and our Code of Ethics was adjusted for future contests.

Next steps: Incorporating diverse perspectives

At present, we actively seek funding to digitize the World Press Photo physical archive, enhance its functionality and searchability, conduct in-depth research, and recontextualize its contents, incorporating diverse perspectives. We aim to collaborate with communities and peer institutions to inform our archival practice.

Our mission is to share our history with global audiences through meaningful programs, exhibitions, and critical discussions, as well as improve the quality and quantity of information we present about past winners through our website. In tandem with these efforts, our regional strategy, initiated in 2021, also serves as a part of our commitment to representing diverse stories from around the world, in alignment with our organization's name.

Image credit: Nick Ut, for the Associated Press