I Witness

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If visual journalism is on the decline, you wouldn’t know it from this year’s World Press Photo competition, the winners of which go on show today at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Selected from 98,671 photographs submitted to the contest organisers, the exhibition showcases the best entries across eight categories. Including individual images alongside photo essays, they highlight some of the major news stories of last year, such as the Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi and the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka. But they also highlight many of the slow-burning issues that continue beyond the daily news cycle, such as people migration – as portrayed in the overall winning photograph by John Stanmeyer.

“It’s a very sophisticated, powerfully nuanced image,” says Jillian Edelstein, one of the jury members of this year’s World Press Photo. “It is so subtly done, so poetic, yet instilled with meaning, conveying issues of great gravity and concern in the world today.”

The picture portrays African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighbouring Somalia, which provides “a tenuous link to relatives abroad,” reads the caption. “Djibouti [in east Africa] 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,” says the photographer. “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 year of an ongoing project on human migration in northern Africa for National Geographic. “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,” says Stanmeyer. “Today, we have other means of connecting, using, for example, mobile phone signals.” He was in Djibouti City, walking along the beach when he came across a group of people raising their phones above their head. “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 better illustrated than this?” He deliberately photographed his subjects at night, in a bid to protect their identity and privacy. “People are very skittish, they don’t want to be seen. Understandably,” he says. “And I love photographing at night – it was a full moon that night.”

The resulting image was published in National Geographic in December last year. “It is an image of beauty and magic and wonderfully mysterious,” Sarah Leen, National Geographic’s director of photography, 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 through a particular community of people separated from their families and loved one.

It’s a scenario familiar to most of us, and that universality of experience is one of the things that drew the jury to it. “The photo is like a message in a bottle, it is one that will last,” says jury member and Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder. “People will bring their own life experiences to it as they stand in front of it.”

“One thing we were discussing was the ethics of certain depictions of violence and suffering, what we show and what we do not show,” adds jury member Susan Linfield. “We discussed how to depict violence and suffering in ways that are not necessarily explicit – not necessarily showing a person starving or bleeding, but finding ways [to show the issue].

“For example, in one series each image shows a couple of articles of clothing [The Last Outfit of the Missing, by Fred Ramos, which won first prize in Daily Life Stories]. It was shot by a photographer in the North Central American Triangle [Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador], and they are the clothes of people who have disappeared. Bodies are dug up and the police try to identify them from these terrible fragments of clothing, which is all the family have left in the end. The photographer has found a way to explore violence in the region without using mutilated bodies.”

Stanmeyer’s winning image takes a similarly oblique angle, Linfield continues, to show another well-explored topic. “Often you see photographs of refugees and migrants and they are depicted as suffering and huddled; this is a very different kind of image. The man in the middle [of the shot] is depicted as almost heroic, it’s almost a Socialist-Realist-reaching towards the future way. For me, the image conveys a kind of hope and dignity.”

Stanmeyer’s image was selected from 98,671 photographs, submitted by 5754 photographers from 132 countries. Other winners included French photographer Philippe Lopez, who took first place in the Spot News Singles category for his image of typhoon survivors in the Philippines; Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic, whose image of rebels attacking a government checkpoint in Damascus, Syria, received first prize in the Spot News Stories category; and Alessandro Penso from Italy, who won the General News Singles category for his work on Syrian refugees.

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