The evolution of photojournalism

In extracts from his speech at 2014's World Press Photo Award, Gary Knight, the current President and Chairman of the Jury of the World Press Photo Award explains how photojournalism and the contest itself are changing for the better.

Gary began his career as a photographer in Indochina in 1988 covering the Khmer Rouge fighting the Vietnamese. In the early nineties he moved to former Yugoslavia and focused on documenting the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. He has worked on assignments as a photographer in over 90 countries for many of the world's leading magazines and in collaboration with leading authors and academics since 1988.

Gary's photography is regularly exhibited across the world and has been published in leading magazines in Europe, the United States and Asia for the last 25 years. In his role as a Canon Master he is developing and finding funding for an education program in Europe, Africa and the Middle East to create opportunities for indigenous photographers.

By Gary Knight, President and Chairman of the Jury of the World Press Photo Award

The evolution of photojournalism - Canon
© Brent Stirton

Starting out

When I started my career as a photographer - in 1988 in Bangkok - I would occasionally fight my way through the sodden evening traffic to visit a bar called "The Front Page" owned by a great Reuters photographer called Arthur Tsang and his wife.

That was the bar where young photographers like me would nurse a beer all night and sit at the feet of the older and wiser photographers.

Whatever path the conversation took it invariably ended up at the same destination - that photojournalism was dead.

There was little inspiration in that. And I didn't think it was true then and I don't now.

Why photojournalism is alive and thriving

In 1988 photojournalism wasn't the same as it had been in the 1960's when these men had started their careers - but it wasn't dead, it was just evolving into something different.

The market and resources had changed, the assignments were not as grand or plentiful - but they were still there to be had and qualitatively, photojournalism didn't seem dead at all.

Photojournalism was simply evolving in a similar way that advertising and movies were evolving.

My friends and I were beginning our careers and had many opportunities to work - it required imagination sometimes but we found ways we could compete with the more established photographers. Our relative poverty was one of our strengths.

We lived amongst local people and learned their languages and customs which gave us knowledge - and thus stories -that many of the older photographers didn't have. We would travel on trains and buses with local people, not on planes, and stay in their houses, eat with them and not in hotels that we couldn't afford. We adapted to the times we lived in, we did not look backwards.

26 years later I keep hearing the same narrative about the end of photojournalism. I don't think they see the irony that the good old days they are referring to are days when photojournalism was already pronounced dead…

And it's still not true.

Like every business practice it has changed - the media that supported it are not as present as they were but photographers are still telling interesting stories and building careers, using their initiative and imagination, adapting to the realities of the market place today and working to their strengths.

Storytelling is not dead, it is essential to human existence, to our collective memory and to our identity, it is very much alive.

Photojournalism is evolving

300 million photographs are posted on Facebook every day.

500 billion photographs were in existence in 2013, and the photographs we take in the next three years will exceed the number taken in all the previous history of photography.

With all this photography being produced, shared, read and decoded we must assume that our audience is more sophisticated, and as professional practitioners we need to learn how to communicate with that sophisticated audience.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and it is necessary now to rethink how we make photographs, what precisely we are trying to communicate and how they will be read.

Changing how we judge the awards

While photojournalism - and for that matter the World Press Photo Award - is still dominated by European and US photographers - more local photographers now have access to worldwide markets through digital technology, and they are challenging the hegemony of occidental photographers in the process.

In 1988 - the year I was in those bars hearing stories of the death of photojournalism the World Press Photo Jury met as it does every year in Amsterdam. The nine person Jury was made up of seven Europeans, one American and one Japanese. One jurist was female. Three of them were news photographers and six of them were photo editors of news media or news agencies.

Most images in the World Press Photo Award were by white men and of the 56 photos that have been given the title World Press Photo of the Year, 32 of them depicted war or civil unrest and nine showed natural or manmade disasters.

This is a very dystopian and reductive view of the world, and it is not one that is representative of what is photographed, what is published or what is recognized by readers world -wide as representing the world they live in.

The principle motivation expressed by many photojournalists - like me - is driven by idealism, that involves engaging with the public and working in partnership with them to change things for the better. If people stop engaging with the work, or reject the work it will become ineffective and demand will vanish.

Encouraging greater diversity

2014's final round jury of nine was composed of five men and four women, of whom three are European, two are from Africa, two from the USA, one from the Levant and one from East Asia. One is a curator, one a photo editor, one an academic and photography critic, one a nature photographer, one a portraitist, one a sports photographer, three are photojournalists of whom one is also in academia.

It's a far more diverse jury with considerably broader and deeper experience in the world that lies beyond the borders of Europe and the USA.

The jury's philosophy

We took the view that it is the job of the press, not a photo competition to editorialise, that is to say that we did not take the position that it was our right to tell a global audience what was the most important issue in the world that year. We agreed to judge how something was photographed, not reward the mere fact that it was photographed.

This year's jury looked for photographs that had some originality, work that started a conversation, work that had context and that would challenge stereotypes, challenge the status quo, we did not reward ordinary work from spectacular events or work that reduced the human experience to a series of banal and trivial clichés.

Consider Fred Ramos's remarkable photographs of the clothing of the missing from El Salvador - his home country. Can anyone fail to ask questions about what is behind that work once they have seen it? How could one ignore it? Ramos used his knowledge of the culture and the story and pushed the limits of what press photography can do - he did not approach the story of murder in the streets the way many before him approached it, by photographing corpses and grieving victims. His work is considerably more powerful and in an age of manifest visual literacy more likely to provoke a response.

How we made the big decision

When it came to choosing the World Press Photo of the Year after two weeks of reducing 96000 photographs down to those in the final, the Jury selected 12 images that were eligible from which to slowly narrow down our choices.

The evolution of photojournalism - Canon
© Markus Varesvuo

We then walked over to a table with 12 prints and I went from left to right and asked the jury to narrow the choice down so that we could get to a manageable number to cast a vote. In the past I would have expected to go from 12 to 10, repeat the process until - a long time later we arrived at three. This jury went from 12 to 2 instantly.

Imagination, courage and creativity

This photograph won because it was the image on the table that we could not stop looking at, and it was an image that was the beginning of a conversation and not the end.

When I look at the final photographs I see work of imagination, courage and creativity; powerful, nuanced and articulate storytelling that can easily be differentiated from the millions of photos posted on social media every day.

I see photography that seems to me to be liberated from the dogma of the past, photography that asks questions and doesn't just make statements. And I see a level of visual sophistication that I didn't see when photojournalism was declared dead 25 years ago.

The evolution of photojournalism - Canon
© Jocelyn Bain Hogg