Q&A: A new photo contest and other exciting news at World Press Photo

Last week World Press Photo announced some exciting new initiatives, that are launching soon.

We at Vignette were very interested in learning more about this news, so I reached out to World Press Photo. Managing Director Lars Boering, was kind enough to answer our questions about the expansion of the organization.

Here is our Q&A.

Tara Todras-Whitehill: The item about the ‘new contest for creative photography’ is big — it is really recognizing different kinds of photo stories. Even though this doesn’t launch until next October, can you tell me a little bit about how this came about, and what kind of projects you’d ideally like to see being entered?

Lars Boering: World Press Photo is best known for the annual photo contest and the digital storytelling contest (which, by the way, we have renamed because we think it is time to retire the term ‘multimedia’). Those contests have a great heritage and a great future, and are about visual journalism that is accurate and fair. The World Press Photo contest has a strict code of ethics, clear visual guidance on what is and is not acceptable, the most rigorous verification process, and rewards single frame, single exposure pictures. All that remains and is unchanged from the 2016 edition.

We recognise, though, that visual storytellers are pursuing new ways of communicating with photography, and we want to connect with and reward these developments. The intention is to reward to those image makers using photographic techniques to tell an actual story, but using creative techniques in constructing, processing and presenting still images. It might be work that combines multiple frames – from double exposures through to images that are the sum of dozens if not hundreds of frames, such as Xavi Bou’s photographs that reveal the flight of birds or Nick Nichols’ shot of a giant redwood tree. Chris de Bode’s “Exodus,” on Bangladeshi migrant workers fleeing Libya in 2011, Eric Bouvet’s “Chaos” series from Ukraine, and Rafal Milach’s “Where the Atoms Die” are also great examples. We have seen interesting work using thermal imaging technologies. And we have seen work – such as Christina de Middel’s “Afronauts” – where scenes are constructed but tell an actual story related to the world. These are all relevant and great bodies of work and there are many other examples.

But it’s essential to note here that this competition will not reward fakes, pictures which someone pretends are real but are made up and designed to mislead the audience. The photographers who will be rewarded by this contest will be open about their purpose and transparent about their processes. And when we present the work to the public, the photographers’ purpose and processes will be made very clear so the audience understands what they are seeing.

What we will have here, then, is the photographic equivalent of what people in the text world call literary journalism or creative non-fiction, in line with the classic definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” In all other fields of the arts, from cinema to literature, there is no debate about the validity of such an award. In literature, the influence of non-fiction books is just as big as the influence from fiction books. So why can’t it be similar in photography?

We will recognize work that has been out there for some time and is regularly published in newspapers, magazines and online. It is time to recognize this work through a new contest, one that will not have rules limiting how images are produced and will not have categories. The judges will make a range of awards, with recognition for work in social documentary, personal documentary, alternative imaging, innovative presentation, amongst others, always looking for the unexpected.

Everyone needs to understand appreciate the new contest is completely separate from the existing annual World Press Photo contest. We wanted it to be a separate contest, rather than just a new category in the existing contest, so we could make the different purpose of each very clear. We think that will be even more obvious once we have provided full details on this new contest in April 2017.

TTW: You mention ‘innovative presentations’ would be welcome in your news release about the contest. Could you expand a bit further on that idea, and what it might mean?

LBWe are very open to new possibilities here, and we’ll expand some more on what could be submitted when we release full details next year. One example of what we’re pointing to with this idea is work like Jim Goldberg’s, the photographs that make up his “Raised by Wolves” project or his “Open See” project. He used original pictures, text, and other illustrations from movies, drawings and diaries to document the lives of runaway teenagers in America, and the lives of what he called new Europeans. And he also shows the work on multiple platforms. There are other projects like this – Susan Meiselas’s “aka Kurdistan” and “Reframing History,” and Carolyn Drake’s “Wild Pigeon” comes to mind too – and hopefully there are many other possibilities that we haven’t even considered yet.

TTW: I think that the new photo contest is a great idea and expands on the idea of what documentary photography is, but there are a lot of photographers who have voiced concern saying that it is taking away from true photojournalism by allowing this contest to be part of World Press Photo. What would your response be to those photographers?

LB: There is great support from photographers, including some of the best known names in photojournalism, who have expressed strong support for the idea of the new contest and have enthusiastically welcomed the fact we are willing to be bold and have a new and separate contest that recognises the new ways of telling stories. But why should this be an either/or choice? The World Press Photo Foundation has been, is, and will remain totally committed to visual journalism that is accurate, fair, verifiable and trustworthy. The world needs that more than ever, and that is what the photo contest, now in its seventh decade, will always reward and what our annual exhibition and yearbook will always show. The foundation is undertaking more activities than ever – debates, education, publications – that serve this mission. But as essential as this visual journalism is, no one should think there is only one “true photojournalism.” Nor is there one “new photojournalism.” We welcome the opportunity to foster a good debate about documentary is amongst those who are open to thinking about it and we will actively invite that debate. There are amazing opportunities in the twenty first century for visual storytelling to embrace, exciting ways to give us insight on our lives and our world, and as I said earlier, that work is already being done and we should also reward it. Different work has different purposes, and the most important thing is that we are all open and transparent about those purposes and how work is made, so our audience can then appreciate what they are being presented with and understand it accordingly.

TTWAbout your new publication ‘Witness’ which sounds visually impactful and also helpful to photographers from a business standpoint – will most of the pieces be ideas that come from the editors or will most be from photographers pitching stories?

LB:  “Witness” is an important initiative for us because we want to develop a publication that promotes new thinking and new talent, open to independent and critical voices. It will start slowly, but we are putting together an editorial team with both foundation staff and external contributors. What we publish will be a mix of commissions from the editors and pitches from writers, photographers, visual storytellers, indeed anyone concerned with the place and power of the visual in contemporary global society. We are able to pay a small fee that honors the principle of paying for contributions.

TTW: And how often will the publication come out?

LB: “Witness” will be a publication on Medium, and like most digital publications theses days, it won’t run to a traditional publication schedule of weekly or monthly. We will publish when we have good articles and stories, and it will be at least one or two per week once we are up to speed.

TTW: Will there be pieces expanding outside of photography, including videos and interactives?

LB: Yes, very much so. We want to cover and debate and show new thinking and new talent in all aspects of visual journalism and visual storytelling.

TTW: The 6×6 Global Talent Program and the World Press Photo Live series seem like a great way to engage people around the world that otherwise wouldn’t feel they could be apart of this community, or know how to get involved. Can you explain a bit more about why these are important to World Press Photo’s goals for the future?

LB: We are ambitious and we want to live up to the idea of “world” in our name. That means we want to be more diverse and encourage greater diversity in visual journalism and visual storytelling. 6×6 will be a way of regularly identifying and promoting new global talent. There is a lot of unrecognised talent out there and we should all see more of it. We are able to highlight them so they can find a bigger audience and connect them with industry leaders that want to work with them. It will be a great way to help them build up a resumé.


World Press Photo Live is about periodic conversations and debates in different locations around the world to really thrash out issues of concern and importance for the community. We want to lead, but not by telling people what to think or do; we want to lead by creating the forum and publications for new approaches, new ideas and new solutions. I said when I started as director I wanted World Press Photo to be a “think tank” for photography and the visual. This is how we are doing it, not by creating an institution, but by creating new activity and programs. We lead and we listen, we teach and we also learn new things ourselves. To me that is a powerful combination moving forward.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

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