Judging competitions is subjective. And nothing is as subjective, it seems, as photography. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve sized up the winner of a major photo competition and been struck by how much better — more emotional, more trenchant, relevant and eye-catching — one of the honourable mentions is, when compared to the chosen winner.
Everyone has an opinion, and no two opinions are likely to be the same.
Sometimes, though, as in the case of the recent World Press Photo of the Year award, the argument is about more than mere semantics. In a break from protocol, World Press Photo head judge Stuart Franklin penned a passionate, persuasive and, for me, telling essay in The Guardian newspaper about how he disagreed with his fellow jurors’ final selection.
The winning photo, by Turkey-based Associated Press photographer Burhan Özbilici, showed the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey standing over his victim at an Ankara art gallery and shouting in triumph.
Franklin, a London, England-born photographer former president of the Magnum Photos agency (2006-’09), is himself a past winner of the World Press Photo award, having won for his image of “the Tank Man” for Time magazine during the uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Franklin was narrowly outvoted by his fellow jury members, he told The Guardian, even though he argued in favour of Özbilici’s winning the spot news prize, which Özbilici, also won.
Franklin’s reasons for arguing against its winning the top prize, though, raise important questions for any serious photographer aiming to get that one image that, without meaning to sound precious or pretentious about it, can change the world.
Özbilici showed composure, bravery and skill to take the photo, Franklin said, because what happened was so unexpected — a split-second of violence at a tedious, done-it-a-hundred-times-before press conference at an art gallery — followed by utter chaos and mayhem.
A split-second image of an assassination has won the World Press Photo of the Year Award three times, Franklin pointed out, most notably Eddie Adams’ classic 1968 image of Saigon national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s summary execution of a Vietcong sympathizer.
Adams’ photograph was one of several that would turn popular opinion against the Vietnam War, in a time when a still photo really could shape the public’s perception of a divisive, complicated moral issue.
Unlike the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo — an event many historians say touched off the First World War — the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara had thankfully limited political consequences, Franklin said. There’s no question Özbilici’s has real impact, but there were more worthy candidates for Photo of the Year, Franklin suggested.
“It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading,” Franklin wrote in the Guardian.
Franklin argued that giving Özbilici’s photo the spotlight of Photo of the Year is a tacit invitation to other would-be crazies to stage similar stunts.
“It reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity,” he argued.
That said, he added, chairing a jury — any jury — is all about recognizing divergent views and accepting the outcome.
Here’s the part every serious photographer can agree with:
Photography is capable of real service to humanity, by prompting empathy and striving to initiate real change. Franklin looks for “an empathetic eye,” mindful that photographers go to great lengths — “often putting their own lives at risk” — to break the silence, speak truth to power and enlighten us, all of us, through pictures on the off-chance that “they might, just might, inspire change.”
Franklin said that by writing about the issue in the Guardian, he hoped to celebrate and draw attention to some of the other photographs from the past year to win World Press prizes.
I’ve included some of them here, so you can judge for yourself.
Migrants attempt to reach Macedonia from Greece.
‘Vadim Ghirda’s empathetic photograph lends pathos to a challenging event,’ Franklin said.
Syrian men carry babies through the rebel-held Salihin neighbourhood of Aleppo.
‘Ameer al-Halbi [not his real name] deserves respect for his courage in documenting the relentless bombing of Aleppo.’
Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge by Jonathan Bachman. The image captures what became for many the defining image of the Black Lives Matter rallies that swept the US last year.
Brent Stirton won first prize in the nature stories category for his image of a dead black rhino, poached for its horns less than eight hours earlier at Hluhluwe Umfolozi game reserve, South Africa.
©Brent Stirton/National Geographic
Tom Jenkins topped the sports singles category for his picture of jockey Nina Carberry flying off her horse during the Grand National steeplechase.
©Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
China’s Wild West, shows a Uighur woman carrying money in her stockings, a common practice.
© Matthieu Paley/Reuters