The Rhetoric of Prize Winning Photographs

Instead of asking only if prize winning images are manipulated, we should also ask why they are changed to become the way they are.

Is it a fake? Is it pho­to­shopped? Is it real? Paul Hansen’s win­ner of the 2012 World Press Pho­to com­pe­ti­tion is just the lat­est exam­ple of more than 100 years of con­tin­u­ous dis­cus­sions about the manip­u­la­tion of photographs.

How­ev­er, instead of ask­ing only if prize win­ning images are manip­u­lat­ed (and of course in some way they all are), we should also ask why are they changed to become the way they are? Or, to put it dif­fer­ent­ly: what kinds of pho­tographs win awards? When we look clos­er at the chang­ing styles of the win­ning pho­tographs since the begin­ning of the World Press Pho­to com­pe­ti­tion in 1955, we see that Hansen’s pic­ture is part of a cin­e­mat­ic form of expres­sion that has emerged in the last 6–7 years.

Netherlands World Press Photo Contest

The image por­trays fam­i­ly mem­bers from Gaza car­ry­ing the bod­ies of a two small chil­dren to their bur­ial after being killed in an Israeli air strike. It is no coin­ci­dence that it has been called a movie poster. How­ev­er, the pho­to is more like a still; a sto­ry frozen in time, but con­densed with motion and move­ment, invit­ing us into a nar­ra­tive of what has hap­pened before, and what might hap­pen next. This new trend is dif­fer­ent from oth­er dom­i­nant styles among the WPP winners.

Some of the win­ning pic­tures hold what we can call news moments (sim­i­lar to Hen­ri Carti­er Bresson’s deci­sive moments). Most of the news moments are from the 1960s. A prime exam­ple is Eddie Adams’ 1968 pic­ture of the exe­cu­tion of a sus­pect­ed Viet Cong mem­ber, show­ing the exact moment of the bullet’s pen­e­tra­tion of the brain. The impact of the pic­ture lies pri­mar­i­ly in cap­tur­ing a cer­tain news event in a frac­tion a second.

The clos­er we get to this cen­tu­ry, the few­er pic­tures we see of such news moments. Instead we see more fea­ture-like pho­tographs cap­tur­ing – not a moment, but a gen­er­al sit­u­a­tion or con­di­tion. Take this win­ner from 2004 por­tray­ing a woman mourn­ing a rel­a­tive after the Asian tsuna­mi of Decem­ber 2003.

Image 2, WPP 2004, A. Datta

The pho­to is con­struct­ed around a jux­ta­po­si­tion between the dead body, rep­re­sent­ed by only an arm in the left of the frame, and the bereaved, rep­re­sent­ed by a woman lying face down on the sand in the right part of the frame. This kind of explic­it­ly artis­tic visu­al rhetoric pre­vailed from 2000–2004.

The 2001 win­ner por­trays how the body of a one-year-old boy who died of dehy­dra­tion is being pre­pared for bur­ial at Jalozai refugee camp in Pak­istan. It is a very rare exam­ple of a pic­ture being tak­en in a full bird’s eye per­spec­tive, direct­ly from above.

Image 3, WPP 2001, E. Refner

The pic­ture is dom­i­nat­ed by the white col­or of the drap­ing sheets, cov­er­ing the body of the lit­tle boy, so we only see the left side of his face. He seems at peace, and the pic­ture exudes calm­ness, giv­ing it an almost ethe­re­al dimen­sion. Com­bined with the angle of the arms drap­ing the sheets, the pic­ture is more an aes­thet­ic moment than it is a news moment.

Hansen’s pic­ture is nei­ther a news moment nor an aes­thet­ic moment – not to say, of course, that it does not have style. All images do. Instead the aes­thet­ic ten­den­cy exhib­it­ed in this pic­ture is a more of a kind of movie real­ism, a sort of pho­to­graph­ic cin­e­ma ver­ité. We see a sim­i­lar ten­den­cy in the win­ners from 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The 2007-win­ner shows a US sol­dier sink­ing onto an embank­ment in a bunker in Afghanistan. The 2008 win­ner depicts a police­man enter­ing a home in Cleve­land, USA, in order to check whether the own­ers have vacat­ed the premis­es. In 2009 we see women shout­ing their dis­sent from a Tehran rooftop fol­low­ing Iran’s dis­put­ed pres­i­den­tial election.

Image 4_Winners of WPP 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012

These images are not col­or­ful, there are no close ups, no clear, sim­ple or styl­ized com­po­si­tions, and no con­spic­u­ous jux­ta­po­si­tions or an obvi­ous use of some part to rep­re­sent a whole. They give the impres­sion of the fic­tion­al real­ism we some­times encounter at the cinema.

While the begin­ning of the decade pre­sent­ed pho­tographs that have their main rhetor­i­cal appeal in their com­po­si­tion­al and aes­thet­ic orga­ni­za­tion, these pho­tographs appeal more through sto­ry-mak­ing. The first kind invites the view­er inside the frame, encour­ag­ing explo­ration of the ele­ments in the visu­al moment, cap­ti­vat­ing us through visu­al design. The sec­ond kind invites the view­er out­side the frame, encour­ag­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in the con­struc­tion of a nar­ra­tive, engag­ing us in spec­u­la­tions of what has hap­pened and what will happen.

This kind of neo-real­is­tic press pho­tog­ra­phy seems to be more open to inter­pre­ta­tion than the more obvi­ous sym­bol­ic pho­tos. The strange thing, though, is that the more the pic­tures draw us into a sto­ry of most­ly our own cre­ation, they seem to draw us away from the events they are depict­ing. They are all fab­u­lous images, but even when pro­vid­ed with the back­sto­ries I remain a spec­ta­tor immersed in the sto­ry, in awe of the art­work, wait­ing for the movie to premiere.

World Press Pho­to award-win­ning pho­tographs by Paul Hansen, Arko Dat­ta, Erik Refn­er, and (clock­wise from the upper left) Tim Het­her­ing­ton, Paul Hansen, Pietro Mas­tur­zo, and Antho­ny Suau.

This text has pre­vi­ous­ly been pub­lished on the site No Cap­tion Need­ed. If you are inter­est­ed in pho­to­jour­nal­ism, don’t miss it.







  1. […] from the tra­di­tion­al win­ners over the years that way, how­ev­er, it seems to also be part of an emerg­ing trend among the win­ning pho­tographs of recent years: a cin­e­mat­ic aes­thet­ics that com­bines artistic […]

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