World Press Photo: Santiago Lyon speaks of winning image’s power

Santiago Lyon, director of photography at The Associated Press and chair of this year's World Press Photo jury, speaks to BJP about Paul Hansen's winning image, its power and message

Olivier Laurent 15 February 2013

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World Press Photo of the Year 2012's winning image by Paul Hansen, Sweden, Dagens Nyheter. Two-year-old Suhaib Hijazi and her big brother Muhammad, who soon was to be four years old, were killed when their house was destroyed by an Israeli missile strike on Monday evening. Their father, Fouad, was also killed. Their mother is in intensive care at Al-Shifa Hospital. In accordance with their religion, the dead are buried quickly. The badly mangled body of Fouad is put on a stretcher and his brothers carry his dead children to the mosque for the burial ceremony. When darkness fell over Gaza on this day, at least 26 new victims were to be buried. That makes the total more than 140 dead so far since the beginning of the bombardment. Approximately half of the dead are women and children. The picture was taken on 20 November 2012 in Gaza City, Palestinian Territories

Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the 56th World Press Photo for a picture of a group of men carrying the bodies of two dead children through a street in Gaza City. BJP‘s Olivier Laurent speaks with the jury’s chair, Santiago Lyon.

Olivier Laurent: How did you prepare for this competition?

Santiago Lyon: Being asked to be the chair was a big surprise. I was deeply honoured and humbled to be considered for this role, having never judged this before. To be elevated from a first-round jury member to be the chair was really exciting.

Of course, I began to prepare for that. I talked to Gary Knight, Stephen Mayes – who had been the secretary for many years – and to some people who had been on the jury in previous years, to get a sense of how it would work. With that information, I applied my own criteria. Those were, I guess, two main things. Number one: paying attention to the name of this contest: World. Press. Photo. I wanted some pillars to sustain this whole thing.

The other thing that became clear to me was that it was really important to make sure that every member of the jury’s voice was heard. I made a point that every jury member spoke about every single image. It was tiring. What it did was that it exposed people to perspectives sometimes really different from their natural perspectives.

To hear different jurors coming at images from a variety of different directions was refreshing and educational. I believe that had an effect on the process, in the sense that people were prepared to discard their pre-conceived ideas and learn something new.

Olivier Laurent: In terms of the winning image, what’s your personal take on it?

Santiago Lyon: I think it’s really powerful. I’ve always maintained that to succeed a photograph has to engage on at least one of three levels: your head, your heart and your stomach. And this photograph engages on all three. It’s an amazing picture.

Olivier Laurent: This image was shot in Gaza, but it speaks on different levels. It could be an image shot in Syria, for example.

Santiago Lyon: I think that’s an image that shows the effects of conflicts on the civilian population, and that, unfortunately, is a trend that has become the norm in modern warfare. The civilians are often caught in the middle or are the innocent victims of this kind of conflicts. So, in that sense, it’s a universal image.

Olivier Laurent: There are already people commenting that this image is anti-Israel. Does that kind of considerations play a role in a juror’s decision?

Santiago Lyon: No. I think what we’re looking at here is the human condition. I don’t think it’s about what side of the conflict these people are. It’s the fact that their lives were ripped to thunder by violence.

Olivier Laurent: A lot of the images that were rewarded in the news categories were shot at close range, especially in Syria. Right now, there’s a debate in the photojournalism community about the role of war photographers and the risks they take. For example, The Sunday Times is now asking freelancers to stop sending images from Syria because it’s too dangerous. Was it a conscious choice from the jury to reward these images?

Santiago Lyon: I won’t comment on The Sunday Times; they are free to set their own policies as they see fit. War photography is inherently a really dangerous business. I did it for many years. I was wounded myself and I had a lot of friends and colleagues killed over the years.

So, I know what that’s about. I think what needs to happen is for the various organisations to set the policies they are comfortable with and live with them or live by them. Certainly at The Associated Press we have guidelines and we are in the process of examining them again to make sure that we’re comfortable with them.

I think that the freelance community is particularly at risk because they don’t, typically, have the backing of large organisations so when they do get into trouble, they’re on their own. So, we need to ask ourselves what can be done to mitigate that. What organisations can help? It’s a complicated situation and a complicated story.

But I don’t think that by giving awards to combat photography we’re encouraging people to behave irresponsibly. I don’t think so. I think that the people that do this kind of work are really committed to it and believe in it really strongly, and that they’re going to do it regardless. I don’t think there are that many people that do that kind of work thinking about prizes. I do think prizes are a good inspiration for people when they get them. Certainly, I won a couple of World Press Photo prizes, and I know that when I got them, it inspired me.

Olivier Laurent: As a vice president at The Associated Press, how do you feel about your agency winning eight prizes this year?

Santiago Lyon: That’s a testament to the talent of the people we have working for us. The question you’re asking me is “Wait a minute, you’re the chair of the jury and your agency walks away with all these prizes…” I can see how some people might wonder about that, but the process is incredibly transparent.

I had never seen the process before and I always wondered what it was like. Affiliations were made clear, and certainly, one person in a nine-person jury cannot sway the vote. Some people, in fact, would say that it put you at a disadvantage because people will know that you have an association to the work. So, here, those images all stood up by themselves.

They didn’t need my help. I voted for them when I thought they were strong, and when I didn’t think they were strong, I didn’t vote for them. But I’m really proud. I think it’s the most prizes that we’ve ever come away with. I’m very happy for all the AP photographers involved. I think it shows that we have people all around the world with a high level of talent. That’s inspiring.