‘These awards show the consequences of a lack of resources in the industry,’ says World Press Photo’s chair Gary Knight

Gary Knight, who presided over this year's World Press Photo jury, speaks to BJP about judging the prestigious awards for the fourth time, noting the evolution of an industry that is struggling to find proper resources

Olivier Laurent 14 February 2014

1st Prize Spot News Stories: Syrian rebel fighters take cover amid flying debris and shrapnel after being hit by a tank shell fired towards them by the Syrian Army in the Ain Tarma neighborhood of Damascus © Goran Tomasevic, Serbia, Reuters

First prize Spot News Stories: Syrian rebel fighters take cover amid flying debris and shrapnel after being hit by a tank shell fired towards them by the Syrian Army in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus

Image © Goran Tomasevic, Serbia, Reuters

“I’ve done this four times with World Press Photo, and multiple times elsewhere in the world, and, I have to say – no disrespect to any other jury I’ve served on – this one was by far the most exceptional. It was a really thoughtful and intelligent, open-minded jury that was very willing to challenge its own prejudices and preconceptions in a way I’ve never experienced before.”

When the two-week-long process kickstarted in early February, Knight brought the jury together to define its goals. “It was important to establish what we were going to judge and what we were going to ask ourselves,” Knight tells BJP in a phone conversation. “There was a significant conversation about the hierarchy of issues. Are some issues more important than others, and to what extend should we bear that in mind, if at all? Did we want to make statements? And what would they be? The conclusions we came to were that there’s no hierachy of issues and that we didn’t want to make any statements. What we wanted to do was to judge the skills and abilities of the photographers who entered. It made [the whole process] much easier.”

Yet while the photographs that were selected as this year’s winners were strong, Knight was disappointed by a “perceived lack of depth” in the stories submitted. “I felt there was a material gap in the way the world was covered, and in the quantity and quality of the strong stories we were presented with. For example, one might expect that certain issues would be very well covered; that you would have five, 10 or 15 well-executed stories to choose from, let’s say, 10 years ago when you had Paris Match, Stern, Spielgel, Time, Newsweek and everybody else assigning photographers on a regular basis to go and cover these important stories. This year, most of these important stories were photographed by very few photographers. You didn’t have depth in each issue and each event.”

He adds: “And then, within these stories, it was very evident that many of them hadn’t been well developed, so when you come to judge that story, you are left thinking: ‘It hasn’t been edited very well. There is no narrative.’ Both in terms of depth and breadth, I noticed that something was missing. If you look at the organisations that have won awards – National Geographic, The New York Times, AP, AFP and Reuters – it’s evident there are very few [institutions] left that can still afford to provide resources to photographers. I’m seeing in these awards the real-life consequences of the lack of resources that photographers have to go out into the world and cover stories with any depth at all.”

While the World Press Photo organisation could address this issue by creating new categories that “accommodate the direction that photographers are going into,” says Knight, “what I would like to see is a significant conversation in the industry to [address this issue]. What we can do is provide educational opportunities to indigenous photographers who can photograph these issues in their own communities. We can follow the lead of people like Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, who has created an economic infrastructure that supports and sustains photography. I think we need to look at that. And we need to accept that times have changed.”

That debate, however, shouldn’t detract from the quality of this year’s winners, Knight adds. “What you see in the selection we’ve made is a number of photographers who have really tried to address well-known issues and attempted to rethink how they might engage the general audience and represent these stories differently.”