Awards, Documentary, Photojournalism

Giving a human face to ‘the other side’ at this year’s WPP

Hasaka, Syria - August 1, 2015. A doctor rubs ointment on the burns of Jacob, 16, in front of a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, center, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, at a YPG hospital compound on the outskirts of Hasaka. According to YPG fighters at the scene, Jacob is an ISIS fighter from Deir al-Zour and the only survivior from an ambush made by YPG fighters over a truck alleged to carry ISIS fighters on the outskirts of Hasaka. Six ISIS fighters died in the attack, 5 of them completely disfigured by the explosion (c) Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

A doctor rubs ointment on the burns of a 16-year-old Islamic State fighter named Jacob in front of a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, at a Y.P.G. hospital compound on the outskirts of Hasaka, Syria on 01 August 2015. Image © Mauricio Lima, for the New York Times, who one first prize in general news singles with this shot

An intimate shot of a 16-year-old IS fighter in hospital speaks of WPP's commitment to diversity, says Vaughn Wallace, a member of the WPP jury and Al Jazeera America deputy photo editor

“Mauricio Lima’s image of the young Islamic State fighter is fascinating,” says Vaughn Wallace, who was on the Documentary jury of the World Press Photo competition this year. “It’s quite possibly the first time an Islamic State fighter has been portrayed on such an intimate, visual level.”

As Wallace says the image, which shows a 16-year-old fighter named Jacob being treated for severe burns, puts a very different face on a figure usually vilified in the Western media – but for Wallace, this is one of the things that helped win it first prize in the General News Singles category. “Mauricio’s image really stands out in contrast to the ways we typically engage with the IS visually, often through propaganda sourced from social media,” he explains. “Mauricio’s image tells a story and gives a human face to ‘the other side’, sitting in the same tradition as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s work embedded with Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Kate Brooks’ photographs of government forces during the early years of the Syrian Civil War. Images like Mauricio’s provide context and perspective to multi-dimensional, highly-political conflicts.”

Wallace is the deputy photo editor at Al Jazeera America, the international news broadcaster part-funded by the Qatari ruling family, and says his organisation has “a quite different perspective on news than much of the Western mainstream”. He praises the World Press Photo organisers for bringing together such diverse juries this year, adding that this diversity helped ensure that a variety of views could be taken on board during the judging. “We had a really interesting mix of jurors from different demographics and outlets,” he says.

“It was obvious that the organisation wanted as many different voices in the jury room as possible; editors from print and web publications, wire services, photographers, agency chiefs and curators. There were incredible discussions in the final rounds because of this mix. I found I couldn’t take any one approach to an image for granted. As jurors made cases for individual photographs, I was impressed by the different perspectives being presented. The latitude of ways certain photographs were considered and discussed was eye-opening.”

Even so, he knocks back any suggestion that this year’s WPP is somehow more political, or more engaged, than in recent years. “WPP is a contest for visual journalism, reflecting the major stories and themes seen throughout the world in 2015,” he says. “The selection may feel news-oriented because of the types of stories being told — large-scale migration, the refugee crisis, natural disasters, conflict and so on.”