Do Photojournalism Contests Glamorize Pain and Suffering?

Do Photojournalism Contests Glamorize Pain and Suffering?

Cover photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/Agence France-Presse

In a break from the past, World Press Photo (WPP) released the short list of finalists in advance of naming the winners to their annual contest – arguably the most prestigious in all of photojournalism. The photos are remarkable for their composition, exposure and intimacy. But judging by the subject matter one might surmise that we’re living in a hellish dystopia, or that the jury believes pain and suffering is the most valid form of photojournalism.

A more nuanced look at all the finalists reveals a broader range of subject matter, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the Photo of the Year candidates have an obvious and often despair-laden quality to them (as do many photojournalism contests).

The tendency to value these types of scenes and subject matter made the 2014 selection of John Stanmeyer’s photo all the more startling. In contrast to most years, Stanmeyer’s photo of migrants in Djibouti trying to catch cheaper cell signals from neighboring Somalia depicted an everyday struggle of strangers in a strange land without relying on bloodshed or violence.

Photo by John Stanmeyer

This matters because awarding the industry’s top prize to fire and brimstone images flies in the face of the actual trend of improving conditions around the world (if Bill Gates and Steven Pinker are to be believed).

Most contests provide very little guidance to their juries, which tend to rotate annually. Consistency or a longitudinal vision for a contest’s raison d’être are typically not a part of a jury’s purview. Juries are therefore likely to conform to their “brand perception” of a given contest.

Jurist Thomas Borberg said in a WPP-produced video that “You have to be able to feel a World Press Photo in your stomach. If not, it’s not a World Press Photo.” Given this position, it’s not surprising that violent images are the ones that provoke stomach churning reactions.

Media reinforces and shapes public perception whether intended or not. And the same photos and photographers tend to win multiple awards in a given year, thus generations of photojournalists are led to believe that contest-worthy images must conform to a certain look-and-feel. This isn’t just conjecture. A well-known documentary photography who eschews photo contests told me in response to the WPP images, “Disaster porn photojournalism is corrosive to that idea by constantly saturating our media world with the message that the world is hell and never gets any better. Therefore, the logic goes, things like foreign aid are a waste and trying to help places like Africa is doomed to unending failure.”

Why do the final photos have to be of a man on fire or legs beneath a body bag? Why not the world’s largest lithium ion battery that solved an energy crisis in Australia? Why not a portrait of Tarana Burke? Are these images not salacious enough for a contest-sized appetite?

Contests (and portfolio reviews) are, for better or worse, efficient mechanisms for photographers to market themselves. This isn’t a clarion call for the elimination of either. But photographers, photo editors and contest organizers might reconsider how the selection of winners forms its own narrative of the world, and whether this narrow distillation creates a restricted and distorted view of reality.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 17 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Do Photojournalism Contests Glamorize Pain and Suffering? – PhotoShelter Blog – The Click
  2. Howard Cihak at 11:01 am

    The author makes a very valid point about the current vogue in photojournalistic “winners.” There is also, unfortunately, no denying that violent images are also what “sells” in newspapers and the like. To the extent that that is true, one can’t help but wonder what it says about humans as a species.

    In the end, however, we ought to consider whether it is or ought to be the responsibility of photo contest juries to reshape our attitudes and preferences. If the task of the photojournalist is to “tell the story,” then any attempt to reshape the public’s thinking by the choice of images portrayed violates the ideal of what all journalism is supposed to be about.

    • Mike O'Brien at 11:01 pm

      Howard, I agree about journalism itself, but the concern expressed in the blog is that photojournalism contests may be slanted towards “disaster porn.” I find such images awkward, in that after viewing them I don’t know what to do. For example, seeing images of teens living in sewers in Romania and getting high on glue–where do you go with that? There’s little context, so it’s a challenge to follow up on what the photojournalist is describing.

  3. Rafael Edwards at 2:17 pm

    I find this a refreshing point of view, and hopeful at that too. I am in complete agreement with Ronaldo’s view. Reporting government violence, warfare, injustice and racism was revolutionary in the 50s and 60s and the postwar years in general when we thought things were going ok. National Geographic reported on “the friendly atom” while nuclear testing was going on unchecked and new wars were being waged in different places. Today we all know a lot more about the world we live in, and portraying history as if written only in blood has a terrible effect in people. This paralyzes us in the belief that the world is doomed and there is nothing we can do about it. I think this calls for a different discussion on the role of documentary photography and the media.

  4. Daniel J. Cox at 5:31 am

    Great piece Allen. I’ve said it for years that it’s only the horrific images that put photographers on the map. If you’re working to show the beauty of the world forget it. A friend of mine, wildlife and natural history photographer Michio Hoshino, who was killed by a brown beer in Kamchatka in the mid 90’s, was honored with at least one Japanese award for natural history that’s considered something similar to the Pulitzer Prize. Try to find anything like it similar in the US. Not happening. I’m impressed and grateful you’ve written this piece to point out what I’ve known for many years.

  5. Andrew Molitor at 7:15 pm

    It’s all of a piece, a mesh of causation extending outwards forever.

    WPP, having established itself as a Notably Entity naturally wishes to protect and expand its
    influence. This in turn attracts vested interests, of one sort or another, who (roughly)
    exchange their help in making WPP bigger and preserving what WPP is, for pictures that
    will generate clicks, views, whatever.

    Since people are, basically, awful, we end up with lowest common denomination pictures. In
    simple terms, yes, if it bleeds it leads. But this ethic insinuates itself into the system top to
    bottom. Replace WPP with another Notable Entity and the same thing will happen.

    I see quite a bit of blather around this here and there, from people like John Edwin Mason,
    and Jörg Colberg. I assume that thousands of other similar kinda-influential voices are singing
    more or less the same lyrics. The song goes that we need to fundamentally change WPP, or
    replace it with something else, or whatever.

    That’s utterly wrong headed, and self-serving. One speculates that Mason, and Colberg (and perhaps even our host, Murabayashi) don’t really want to replace WPP with something better,
    they merely want to replace the people in charge with themselves.

    In order to consistently get things like Stanmeyer’s pictures, we need new structures.

    Photojournalists and Critics alike should be telling us, showing us, not what we WANT to hear and see, but what we OUGHT to hear and see. The incentives are all wrong for that to ever
    happen. If you put Colberg or Mason in charge of a leading press agency, they’d be pushing
    the same damn pictures in a matter of months, because the pressures of the system are
    just too great.

    Imagine a world where the incentives are reversed, where journalists are — somehow — rewarded for telling us what we need to hear, what we ought to hear, not just what we,
    embodied by the lowest-common-denominator — will most easily give our attention to.

  6. Claudio Galli at 5:17 am

    Even before reading what Allen has noted, I have arrived at the same conclusions about the “shocking” subjects of the photos of the year, i.e. I fully agree with him. There are thousands of beautiful, no-shocking, photos around the world that could have won the prize!

  7. Jore Puusa at 4:01 am

    Photojournalism is slowly dying. Editors take more and more the pictures for their stories -at least where I come from – Finland. That means the visual quality is going down and that means readers are more and more used to crap. And because they have no ability to read pictures- then they enjoy only violence – cause it is so obvious and easy to understand.
    If a photographer takes a different pictures, that is not a norm, he will be in deep problems if he tries to justify that picture. A different/wrong word from a photographer in the newsroom and out You go and Your career is finished.
    Competitions are politics. In 70`s and 80`s the winners had to come equally behind the iron curtain and the west. Now the main thing is selling and money. And violence sells good because of videogames and violence in TV shows, those are bound to advertising. We are slowly moving towards dystopia where cruelty is power and the photojournalism reflects it strongly.
    Youtube is filled with videoclips where a US sharpshooter kills a native somewhere and his pals shout yippeeee. That is what our societies are about. Murder and violence and disaster. Orwell and Bradbury, here we come.

  8. Paul Stuart at 10:59 am

    Yep, but as they all work for papers demanding more and more salacious material, it what sells, and this has ALWAYS been the case!
    If you can imagine the colossal hassle involved in photographing the American Civil War using a caravan darkroom and huge wet-plate glass plates, at the risk of your own life- for money!!- you’ll have some idea of man’s determination to suffer and to record suffering.
    It feeds the egoes of those who imagine foolishly that they are witness to history, and are its appointed artists, it gets you into Magnum, it makes your reputation .

    Can you please postpone that execution for a few moments? I need to change my lens….

  9. Ricardo Villagran at 7:02 pm

    Recipe for an award-winning photo:

    Go to a 3rd. world location. The poorer the better.
    Capture one person at his worst suffering moment. Kids always add votes.
    Use a wide-angle lens.
    Set your aperture at f1.2 or f1.4 for dramatic effect.
    Publish it.

    I wonder if photography has to show the worst of humankind in order to be considered “photojournalism”.

  10. Mike at 10:10 pm

    Sorry, I disagree with the whole, it’s too shocking lets look at some nice pictures of cats vibe of this piece.

    There are plenty of prizes for pretty pictures and you’re complaining about the only one that isn’t. Let’s all just bury our heads in the sand.

  11. Bill at 7:33 pm

    Hahahaaaaaa, what a dumb question! Of course contests glamorize pain and suffering. So-called objective photojournalism is a luxury of the rich and powerful. It is the play thing for those with no real stake in the outcome. If you’ve got the knife to your neck, you sure as hell don’t need a photographer documenting the situation. You need a six foot nine Marine to Do Something.

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