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World Press Photo is not something that usually fits in the Outdoor and Adventure Sports Photography world but many photographers across multiple genre’s follow the World Press Photo awards with interest and evaluate who win’s what and whether there will be any controversy.
I know several of our Staff Pro’s entered this year’s competition but, in a twist, one of our Staff Pro’s was actually a juror for this year’s competition. We asked Chi Yin Sim, a Singaporean documentary photographer based in Beijing and member of the VII photo agency, for some insight on the judging process and some of the issues affecting photojournalism at the moment.
As we head towards the World Press Photo Awards days and ceremony in Amsterdam this weekend (22nd April 2016), we asked Chi Yin five quick questions on her experience of getting the inside track on one of the world’s largest and oldest photographic competitions.
A: I was part of a five-person jury for the documentary categories. This year, that meant looking at 33,000 pictures in the Contemporary Issues and Daily Life categories. (The Long Term Projects category this year was not judged by the documentary jury but the news jury.) I was on the specialized jury which does the initial rounds of the judging. Two members of each specialized jury category then stays on for another week to do the final judging.
What struck me first was the sheer volume of work submitted. As a first-time juror, I’d been warned about getting eye fatigue from being on the jury but it was quite intense to sit in a darkened, slightly chilly, room, looking at thousands of pictures every day for four days, shouting out “in”, or “out” to pass pictures through from the first round, and then raising our hands to vote — three votes to pass pictures through to the final rounds. The volume of entries has gone up with the digital age. Unlike in the past where people had to make prints and post them to Amsterdam, now it’s a simple upload and send.
The judging takes place very quickly and captions are not looked at or consulted in the first round — that was something I did not know until I read the jury guidelines before going to Amsterdam. I thought it was a little disappointing given that I am a writer as well as a photographer, but it is a sheer function of time and the volume of work there is to judge. From the second round onwards, captions can be requested and were read out as we looked at the set of work. It was interesting how the words sometimes suddenly changed how we saw a set of images, because of the context and significance of the story. But what this means for photographers is that the images have to really be strong and stand out and on their own if they are to make it through even the first round.
As with any international contest, the quality of the work was a mixed bag. We looked through a wide range of images from across the world, including some which looked like they belong better in the family album! But the best reportage photography of the year was to be found amid the tens of thousands of pictures.
A: The WPP has done a thorough analysis with a geographical breakdown of entrants. There were pictures from all over the world. What struck me was that entrants from China have become the largest group, overtaking the US. Of the 5,700 entrants, almost one-fifth was Chinese.
This is not too surprising, given how hot photography has become in China where the middle-class is growing rapidly and camera gear is all the rage. China has a huge national photo association, with local branches all over the country. The World Press (known in Chinese as 荷赛 which translates to “The Dutch Contest”) is seen as a very important and prestigious contest in China. The culture there is that winning competitions and international recognition seems very important. There are now paid services in China which photographers can use to prepare their submissions to the World Press: editing, toning/ processing of images, translation of captions and the submission. From the China work I saw entered this year, I think it still comes down to the photographer to know their own vision, their own work and to edit it — perhaps with someone they respect and trust, not a generic service — to have a strong set of images to enter.
A: The checks and verification don’t take place until after the first rounds of judging so we did not actively concern ourselves with ethics. We judged the images anonymously and could only sense if some images were set up, over-processed, but if it was a kick-ass story and strong images, we might still pass it through to the next round so it can be verified and checked.
I think the WPP’s analysis after the contest showed there were fewer breaches this year. There was a lot of discussion about whether the tightening of rules and the publication of a code of ethics for the first time this year made many photographers not want to enter the World Press.
I don’t think the rules are so inflexible if you read them right. They are pretty basic guidelines: no setting up in reportage work, and don’t over process or remove elements from the images. The portrait category allows intervention in the production (of images) and actually rewards strong conceptual work.
What concerns me much more than post-production manipulation — which most of the debate seems to focus on but can be easily found out with forensics software and other technical ways — is the manipulation IN production. That is to say, setting up work, playing film set director in the shots and passing them off for found moments. I have to say that is not uncommon at all in some parts of the world where there is weak or no tradition of journalistic training, or there is a strong culture of propaganda as news. This is an issue that comes up in China often, for instance, where some might shrug their shoulders at asking their subjects to pose or move elements of the scene before making a picture and distributing them as reportage. It’s by no means peculiar to China, and more education — rather than finger-pointing — is needed overall, but it might also be a function of political and social culture (of a place). If the norm in a country and its press practices is that setting up is permissible, then photographers in that country are going to carry on doing that. The trouble comes when their work is distributed internationally, printed in international magazines which purport to have high ethical standards or when they enter it into a global reportage competition.
The other dimension of this issue is that more stills photographers are now doing video as well, and ethics there — especially if produced for TV or websites, are a looser about reenactment and such, so it’s a confusing time for many of us.
I shared some of my thoughts on this at a World Press panel in Singapore in late January.
I have no issue with work that is set up or intervened with if it tells the story well — as along as the photographer is upfront and transparent about his/her process, and intends it as conceptual work or a set of posed portraits. Then the viewer knows what it is they are looking at. I think it’s disingenuous to do that sort of work and then pass it off for a series of found moments. If we could all play director with the scenes we want to shoot, get the best moments in the nicest possible light, we’d not need years (of time, sweat and funds) to shoot our personal projects, we could do it much more efficiently. But real life takes time to play out, and no two moments in time are ever the same. Isn’t that a big part of the magic in still photography? Post-production manipulation can be found out with software but manipulation in the production phase, that really comes down to the integrity of the photographer.
Chi Yin has been a member of our Staff Pro team for a number of years now and was the first female photojournalist member of the team.