Since 1955, the World Press Photo Contest has been recognizing the best single exposure pictures that contributed to the prior year of visual journalism. In that span, the contest has recognized some of the most iconic and important image-makers in the world—Don McCullin, Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, James Nachtwey, Tim Hetherington, Jodi Bieber, Stanley Greene, and many, many more.
To make their annual selection, World Press Photo assembles a diverse and international jury, bringing to bear a wide range of expertise and backgrounds on the question, “What was the Photo of the Year from the past 12 months?” To help unify the jury, each year the contest appoints a different jury chair. This year’s chair is GEO France’s director of photography Magdalena Herrera.
Herrera has worked in books, print and magazines, spending ten years as art director and head of the photo department at National Geographic France before joining GEO France as director of photography. Parallel to her journalistic work, she also runs workshops and seminars around the world organized by the World Press Photo Foundation. She was previously a jury member in 2006 and 2010.
Beginning today, the jury starts their long, difficult, thoughtful process of deliberation. To give a sense of scale, the 2017 edition received over 80,000 images for consideration. But somehow, over the coming days, this group will debate, discuss and finally announce their chosen nominees on February 14th. Further, this year, unlike in the recent past, the identity of the “Photo of the Year” will be kept secret until the award ceremony on April 12.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Herrera via phone to learn more about her approach to the enormous task of presiding over the jury. While the experts gather this week in Amsterdam, read on for Herrera’s insights, beliefs, and the best piece of advice she received from a former jury chair.
[Cover image, above: Cairo, Egypt, February 10. Protesters cry, chant and scream in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, after listening to the speech in which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would not give up power. © Alex Majoli, Italy, Magnum Photos for Newsweek. 1st prize General News Singles, 2012 contest.]
LensCulture: You’ve served on two World Press Photo juries already. What was it like to receive this call—to be asked to chair the entire jury?
Magdalena Herrera: To be honest, I was really surprised and quite scared when Lars [Boering, World Press Photo Foundation Managing Director] first made the proposition. Considering that I’ve long worked with documentary photography, not news photography, I felt that this was not exactly my field. But Lars insisted this was not a problem. I’m deeply interested in news photography and I also have a slight remove from its day-to-day functioning. Perhaps my distance could actually help in my assessment.
Further, women in this field continue to fight to receive recognition, and I felt that, as a woman, I could offer an important perspective on the submissions.
Finally, the competition has a new category this year: environment. This has been a particular area of focus for me during my years at GEO. Once I had thought it over, I decided this experience would be a great adventure.
LC: Can you describe the composition of the jury and your approach to bringing together such a diverse collection of perspectives?
MH: Indeed, we have a wide-ranging jury. Individuals coming from everywhere, with all kinds of backgrounds. People from agencies, magazines, and experienced professional photographers. It’s mixed gender, 50-50 men/women, with representation from five continents.
My goal is to make all these eclectic voices heard—to allow their unique experiences and backgrounds to be expressed in the process. We should each remain open to the other person’s point of view while also getting some distance from our daily work. Each one of us has an opportunity to step away from the way we usually see things. The variety of experience on the jury will allow us to consider incredibly varied territories, cultures, and visual approaches in equal measure.
One of my goals is for each member to challenge some of their assumptions. I believe you have to be shaken sometimes in order to recognize truly remarkable work.
In the end, our principal task is to pick the single “best” photo (alongside the winners in each category). Best means lots of things—it has to convey many different messages and also be very simple and immediately impactful at the same time. A tall task, clearly! Personally, I would like it to communicate dignity, reflection, humanity. But after we’ve chosen, it’s up to the world to decide.
LC: You first served on a jury in 2006. Over a decade later, you’re chairing the jury. Can you describe some of the changes that you’ve witnessed in the world of photojournalism during that time?
MH: One thing that is eternal: images can be seductive. As much as we respect it, we must also recognize that photography doesn’t always convey the complexity of the situation. This nuance is more and more crucial. Given the raging debates about “fake news,” and the meaning of the truth, the standards being asked of professional photographers are growing ever more demanding. These awards need to reward and encourage both honesty and ethics from photographers, especially in news categories.
But you asked about changes—in some categories, the lines are blurring. Documentary photography is becoming increasingly creative because the industry itself is changing. The genre is responding to its surroundings. Since photographers can’t lean only on magazines and newspapers, they need to take a wider approach. They have to think about how their work could live as an exhibition, book, online, in other forms. This changes their approach, and the results can sometimes fall between art and traditional documentary.
This is all well and good, but every photographer’s position must be clearly communicated; honesty and ethics remain paramount. Within those parameters, though, experimentation is more than welcome.
Across South Asia, South America, and Africa, in particular, I am seeing so much creativity. These are regions without a long history of (well-paying) press magazines that supported work. Which means they are free of this history. Through the Joop Swart Masterclass, I have met many talented, young photographers whose work is filled with fresh approaches and new ways of storytelling.
Another change: I believe that recognizing an environmental category (which is new this year), is immensely important. This award is for rewarding and recognizing professionals’ work. If there is a subject that demands research and foresight these days, it’s the environment. After all, it touches everything: economy, geography, people, nature and our very future. It’s the topic of our time. But reporting on environmental changes is not easy; it demands high-level professionalism. One needs to work very hard to make the storytelling understandable, appealing, and reliable. Which makes it all the more deserving of separate recognition.
Finally, World Press Photo’s digital storytelling categories [Immersive Storytelling, Longform and more] remain totally separate right now. But when I teach, I find that young photographers are working with all kinds of media, all at the same time. Increasingly, there is no separation: archives used with video, virtual reality mixed with interactive features. This will be our next challenge—understanding how still photography can retain its identity and unique strengths while working in concert with new methods.
LC: Another major change has been the conscious effort to attract a more representative range of submissions, increasing the diversity of geographic entrants and boosting the number of women who enter their work. What is the jury’s role in this effort?
MH: Indeed, I can see throughout the industry that there are more women and individuals from more continents bringing in their perspectives. That deserves to be celebrated, while we recognize that much work remains to be done.
As the head of the jury, I should make clear that the first round takes place without captions. That means it’s very visual, almost visceral. The work that will go to the next round has to make an immediate impact. Ultimately, although the whole process is anonymous, it is my hope that a diversity of experiences and perspectives will prevail—geographically, with regards to gender, and also in new approaches of documentation that we discussed earlier. That’s my personal wish, but again, this is a group process and I have only one voice.
LC: The jurying begins this week. As a last word—did you receive any useful advice from prior jury chairs?
MH: One of them told me, “Ask your jurors what they’re looking for. Ask how they feel about their task as a jury. And do everything you can to make the shy voices be heard.”
—Magdalena Herrera, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: The World Press Photo Festival will be held on April 13-14, 2018 and will be filled with inspiring talks, presentations and meetings with the award-winning photographers. Hope to see you there!