VII Photo’s John Stanmeyer wins 57th World Press Photo of the Year

John Stanmeyer, a VII Photo member and National Geographic contributor, has won World Press Photo of the Year for an image of African migrants on the shore of Djibouti, "raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighbouring Somalia"

Olivier Laurent — 14 February 2014

World Press Photo of the Year 2013: 26 February 2013, Djibouti City, Djibouti African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. Djibouti is a common stop-off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East © John Stanmeyer, USA, VII for National Geographic1st Prize Spot News Single: Survivors of typhoon Haiyan march during a religious procession in Tolosa, on the eastern island of Leyte. One of the strongest cyclones ever recorded, Haiyan left 8,000 people dead and missing and more than four million homeless after it hit the central Philippines © Phillipe Lopez, France, Agence France-PresseMassacre at a Kenyan Mall. Second Prize Spot News (stories): A woman and children hiding in the Westgate mall. They escaped unharmed after gunmen had opened fire at the upscale Nairobi mall on 21 September 2013. At least 39 people were killed in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya’s history © Tyler Hicks, USA, The New York Times3rd Prize Contemporary Issues Single: Police arrive at a crime scene where two bodies hang from a bridge; another three are on the floor. They had been killed by organized crime in Saltillo, Coahuila, in retaliation against other criminal groups. Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico © Christopher Vanegas, Mexico, La Vanguardia / El Guardían2nd Prize General News Stories: Demonstrators gather on a street in Bangui to call for the resignation of interim President Michel Djotodia following the murder of Judge Modeste Martineau Bria by members of Seleka. Bangui, Central African Republic © William Daniels, France, Panos Pictures for Time1st 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, Reuters1st Prize General News Single: Military Ramp, an emergency refugee center, was opened in September 2013 in an abandoned school in Sofia, Bulgaria © Alessandro Penso, Italy, OnOff Picture1st Prize Nature Stories: A cougar walking a trail in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park is captured by a camera trap. To reach the park, which has been the cougar’s home for the last two years it had to cross two of the busiest highways in the US © Steve Winter, USA, for National Geographic3rd Prize Nature Stories: A five-year-old bonobo turns out to be the most curious individual of a wild group of bonobos near the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, in the Democratic Republic of Congo © Christian Ziegler, Germany, for National Geographic Magazine2nd Prize People – Staged Portraits Stories: Ali, a young Egyptian bodybuilder, poses with his mother © Denis Dailleux, France, Agence Vu1st Prize People – Staged Portraits Single: A group of blind albino boys photographed in their boarding room at the Vivekananda mission school for the blind in West Bengal, India. This is one of the very few schools for the blind in India today © Brent Stirton, South Africa, Reportage by Getty Images1st Prize People – Observed Portraits Stories: Hannah and Alena, two sisters living in the rural village of Merkenbrechts, Austria © Carla Kogelman, the Netherlands1st Prize People – Observed Portraits Single: A woman reacts in disappointment after access to see former South Africa President Nelson Mandela was closed on the third and final day of his casket lying in state, outside Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa © Markus Schreiber, Germany, The Associated Press1st Prize Sports Feature Stories: Nadja feeling better just before her last treatment. Lidingö, Sweden. Swedish athlete Nadja Casadei has participated in the World and European Championships in heptathlon © Peter Holgersson, Sweden3rd Prize Sports Action Stories: Daniel Arnamnart of Australia competes in the men's 100-meter backstroke during day two of the Australian Swimming Championships on 27 April 2013 at SA Aquatic and Leisure Centre in Adelaide, Australia © Quinn Rooney, Australia, Getty Images2nd Prize Sports Action Single: Competitor at a slalom contest in Szczyrk, Poland © Andrzej Grygiel, Poland, for PAP-Polska Agencja Prasowa1st Prize Daily Life Single: Kachin Independence Army fighters are drinking and celebrating at a funeral of one of their commanders who died the day before. The city is under siege by the Burmese army © Julius Schrank, Germany, De Volkskrant1st Prize Contemporary Issues Stories: As the fight continued to rage, Shane told Maggie that she could choose between getting beaten in the kitchen, or going with him to the basement so they could talk privately. Lancaster, US © Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, USA, for Time1st Prize Daily Life Stories: Date found: 1 February 2013. Time 3:45 P.M. Location: a sugar plantation in Apopa, San Salvador, El Salvador. Sex: Female. Age: Between 17 and 18 years old. Time of disappearance: not available. The North Central American Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) is one of the most violent regions in the world. In many cases, clothes that are found become the only means to identify victims © Fred Ramos, El Salvador, El Faro

“It’s a photo that is connected to so many other stories – it opens up discussions about technology, globalisation, migration, poverty, desperation, alienation, humanity,” says Jillian Edelstein, jury member of this year’s World Press Photo. ”It’s a very sophisticated, powerfully nuanced image. It is so subtly done, so poetic, yet instilled with meaning, conveying issues of great gravity and concern in the world today.”

US photographer John Stanmeyer of VII Photo was on assignment with National Geographic when he shot this image of “African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighbouring Somalia – a tenuous link to relatives abroad,” reads the caption. “Djibouti is a common stop-off for migrants in transit from countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East.” The picture also won 1st Prize in the Contemporary Issues category.

Speaking to BJP, Stanmeyer says: “It’s an honour and privilege to win. I hope it communicated the reality that we could be any one of those people on the beach, trying to talk to our families back home.”

The image was shot during the first part of a multi-year project for National Geographic on human migration in northern Africa. “I spent a month driving and walking through Ethiopia and ended up in Djibouti, and I remember talking with my writer Paul Salopek on the beach at the Red Sea where, ironically, 60,000 years ago there was a land bridge that allowed us to continue our path – to connect. Today, we have other means of connecting, using, for example, mobile phone signals. I was in Djibouti city, walking along the beach looking for things to photograph, and I remember coming across that spot and seeing all of these people here; I asked my translator what they were doing. They were engaged in what is called ‘catching’. They were trying to get a signal to talk to their loved ones at home. How can modern-day migration be more illustrated than this?”

Stanmeyer photographed at night in a bid to protect his subjects’ identity and privacy. “People are very skittish, they don’t want to be seen. Understandably. And I love photographing at night – it was a full moon that night.”

Stanmeyer didn’t expect to win the World Press Photo of the Year, which, he says, should also go to the entire team who worked with him on the story: “The writer, the photo editor I’ve worked with, the magazine that supports reportage storytelling. And it’s also for the people in the image. I’m glad that I’m able to communicate something that is universal to us all. I have been that man or that woman in that frame countless times as I tried to reach my family back home. I’m thankful and honoured that something poetic, that I hope screams loudly, is shared this way now.”

David Guttenfelder, a photographer with Associated Press and also a jury member, says: “The photo is like a message in a bottle, it is one that will last. People will bring their own life experiences to it as they stand in front of it.”

“What we’re looking for in the winning image is the same quality you would look for in a great film or in literature – the impression that it exists on more than one level, that it makes you think about things you haven’t thought about,” adds jury member Susan Linfield. “You begin to explore the layers, not only of what’s there but of what isn’t there. So many pictures of migrants show them as bedraggled and pathetic; this photo is not so much romantic as it is dignified.”

Sarah Leen, National Geographic’s director of photography, welcomes the win. “John Stanmeyer’s winning image was the lead photograph in National Geographic magazine’s December 2013 story ‘Out of Eden’. It is an image of beauty and magic and wonderfully mysterious,” she tells BJP. “It worked marvellously within our story but it also stands as an icon for the digital era we are living in. Today we seek connection and community with texts, tweets, images and emails. This photograph beautifully, and poignantly, speaks to that desire for connection thru a particular community of people separated from their families and loved one. It is a wonderful choice.”

Stanmeyer’s image was selected from among 98,671 images submitted by 5754 photographers from 132 countries. The jury was chaired by Gary Knight, also of VII Photo. He talks about the process: “Whenever anything comes on the screen, you are obliged to state to the jury that you have a potential conflict of interest. Every single time, you have to do the same thing. You repeat it over and over again. That was absolutely the case for me, and it was the case with many of the other jurors with photographs entered in this competition.”

He adds: “Also, David Campbell, the secretary, has written down all of our associations, and if he notices that there is a pattern in our advocacy or our voting that is consistent with the professional relationship we may have, we get called out on it.”

Winners

Other winners include: French photographer Philippe Lopez, who took first place in the Spot News (singles) category for his image of typhoon survivors in the Philippines; Goran Tomasevic from Serbia, who won first prize in the Spot News (stories) category for his image of rebels attacking a government checkpoint in Damascus, Syria; and Alessandro Penso from Italy, who won the General News (singles) category for his image of Syrian refugees. US photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz took first place in the Contemporary Issues (stories) category for her portrait of domestic violence; Markus Schreiber from Germany won first prize for his image Farewell Mandela, Pretoria, South Africa; and Julius Schrank, also from Germany, took first prize in the Daily Life (singles) category for his image of Kachin fighters in Burma.

Last year, Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the World Press Photo of the Year title for a picture of a group of men carrying the bodies of two dead children through a street in Gaza City. The picture proved controversial after Hansen was accused of manipulating and toning his image. The ensuing debate forced World Press Photo to change its rules regarding “the permissible levels in post-processing of image files” submitted.

BJP Editor Simon Bainbridge comments:

The more I see John Stanmeyer’s World Press Photo of the Year, the more I like it.

On first glance, seen without a caption, it looks like a rather cliched setup shot for a telecommunications advert, the silhouetted figures resembling sculptures – a naff reference to Mayans praying to their sun god, perhaps? – holding their mobile phones aloft in apparent reverence. But that works in favour of the picture when you learn that it is a reportage shot, and it highlights one of the most important stories of our times.

The figures are, in fact, African migrants, standing on the shoreline of Djibouti, the small republic wedged between the war-torn countries of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia on one side, and the kleptocracy of Yemen, a short hop across the Gulf of Aden, on the other. They are holding their mobiles aloft in an attempt to catch a less-expensive phone signal from Somalia – maybe their only link to relatives abroad, or perhaps to contacts who will help them transit to Europe or the Middle East in search of better lives.

It is then a surprising picture, quite different from the images we are usually given to illustrate the wider story of migration out of Africa. It also hints at the role technology plays in this story, highlighting the fact that mobile phones, the internet and social media are bringing the so-called Undeveloped World closer to us in the West much quicker than the often arduous journey that migrants take to escape war or poverty – a reminder that our wealth and opportunity can no longer remain hidden.