World Press Photo judges discuss emotion and content in winning images

Among the gruesome scenes of death and violence that featured strongly in this year's winning images, one image stood out as a symbol of hope - an image of an African woman in a trash tip reading a book. Gemma Padley speaks to members of the jury to hear which images resonated strongly for them

Gemma Padley — 15 February 2013

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Micah Albert, USA, Redux Images, 1st Prize Contemporary Issues Single. Taken on 03 April 2012 in Nairobi, Kenya. Pausing in the rain, a woman working as a trash picker at the 30-acre dump, which literally spills into households of one million people living in nearby slums, wishes she had more time to look at the books she comes across. She even likes the industrial parts catalogs. “It gives me something else to do in the day besides picking [trash],” she said

“The image that moved me especially was of a woman reading a book, sitting among garbage,” says World Press Photo 2013 jury member Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of photography at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “It is a gorgeous image – so full of hope. News is not often filled with images of hope.”

The image entitled At the Dandora Dump taken by American freelance photographer Micah Albert, won first prize in the Singles Contemporary Issues category in this year’s contest. It shows a woman working as a trash picker in Nairobi, Kenya, reading a book she has come across in the rubbish. The image depicts a quiet personal moment of reflection that stands out in a collection of often gruesome and harrowing images.

Several judges in this year’s contest commented on the emotional impact and the human condition in the face of conflict and disaster apparent in the entries, not least in the overall winning image Gaza Burial by Swedish photographer Paul Hansen.

World Press Photo of the Year 2012 winning image by Paul Hansen, Sweden, Dagens Nyheter

“We felt strongly that this image had emotional impact and strong content,” says independent curator Elisabeth Biondi, who was a member of the jury for specialised Portraits. “It was well executed and touched us.”

Of the winning image jury member Gu Zheng, a professor in the School of Journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai, added: “It depicts conflict but also human nature in disaster. We can feel the people’s feelings.”

For Wilkes Tucker, the complexity of emotion on display in this image was important. ”The winning image shows both rage and grief on the men’s faces,” she said. “Here, the ongoing issues in Gaza are embodied in one picture.”

The conflict in Gaza remains a sensitive subject – were the judges aware there might be possible controversy surrounding the winning image? “If we tried to second-guess what everyone thought [about an image], we’d go round in circles,” said Wilkes Tucker. “You don’t seek controversy, but for a really strong image you would expect [strong reactions].”

While the conflicts in Syria and Gaza were major topics this year, the images also took a “broader look at society”, commented one judge, with stories about gangs, drugs and people being treated in hospitals across the world among some of the more frequent topics covered.

Were there any stories that didn’t feature as widely as expected? “I expected more images of Hurricane Sandy but as I was reminded by [jury chair] Santiago Lyon, the hurricane hit at night so it wasn’t ideal in terms of photography!” says Wilkes Tucker. “For some of the biggest stories of the year photographers weren’t necessarily present. The funerals of the children killed at Sandy Hook school were private, for example.”

While content of the image was key it did not dictate which image would win over another. “We didn’t choose an image from a particular conflict because we felt it [had to be represented],” says Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Iraq special correspondent to the Guardian, who was also on this year’s jury. “No single subject is given more importance than another.”

“In my experience, the best photojournalists create with both their mind and their heart,” said Wilkes Tucker. “They isolate segments of a story, which they place in a visual frame. It is about the photographer identifying a story and creating a series that makes you want to look. The component of the human experience is what we were looking for across the board.”

This notion of the image enticing the viewer ‘to look’ begs the question about the ‘aesthetics’ of the image versus content. How heavily does aesthetics feature in arresting people’s attention? “I don’t think aesthetics is necessarily the right word,” says Abdul-Ahad. “You choose an image because it is a striking image.”

“Personally I was looking to see that the craft chosen was appropriate to the story being told; for example, black-and-white, colour or how the image is framed,” commented Wilkes Tucker. “We have to believe the images that are published and labelled as news. In the art world this is not so much of an issue.”

Another image that stood out for the judges was Maika Elan’s image of a gay couple in Hanoi, Vietnam, a country that historically has been unwelcoming to same-sex relationships.

The judges alluded to the strength of this image because of its subject matter. “There is such an amazing tenderness and love in this image,” commented Abdul-Ahad. “It seems unfair that there has to be one winning image, but there has to be one,” he adds. “For me personally I have a collage of 50 images.”