What a photograph can mean changes as it moves through different contexts: the message conveyed by a picture made for a newspaper or an agency report is informed by the publication in which it runs, where it is reprinted, reposted, recaptioned, positioned alongside other images, and thereby reconstructed. Despite having authored an image, the photojournalist’s own voice and intention are often hard to discern without a sympathetic platform or an appropriate vehicle. The image doesn’t become “news” until it’s published – then it becomes a press photograph, with all that such a label implies.

© Pietro Masturzo
© Pietro Masturzo: “Women in Tehran shout from a rooftop in protest against the regime on 24 June in Tehran. The Iranian presidential elections were held on 12 June and the results, proclaiming victory by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, were strongly contested. In the weeks following the election, violent protests took place in the streets. At night, when the streets were empty, people went on to the rooftops of their homes to continue shouting their dissent. Their cries of ‘death to the dictator’ and ‘Allah u Akbar (Allah is great)’ echoed through Tehran.” (World Press Photo of the Year 2009)

Photo competitions like World Press Photo and POYi present a special context for photojournalistic images, where there is a kind of inversion of the picture’s original priorities. While the contests focus on press pictures, there isn’t actually a mandate to represent the news stories of the year (although one imagines that such considerations may nonetheless guide some judges). There is only a mandate to present the “best work” along the practical and ethical mores of the profession.

If you go to the POYi website right now as judging continues, you can not only listen to the judging, but you can see the winning pictures in completed categories as they were never seen in any print or web publication: the image, it’s title and caption, and without the photographer’s name, not even on the Photographer of the Year winner’s page. No ads around the picture, no signals of what to do or where to go after you look at these pictures enticing you to move on. If you pay attention to photography then you may recognise some of the work. But you will certainly see a lot of images that you have not seen before. I recommend this experience – it’s unsettling but it does the pictures and their subjects a certain amount of justice and by extension services the unnamed photographers as well. Ordinarily I like to have as much context as possible for interpreting a photograph but in this case I appreciated being able to look at the pictures with the photographer’s explanatory text and really nothing else.

© Walter Astrada
Images © Walter Astrada, “Bloodbath in Madagascar, February” (World Press Photo 2009 1st prize Spot News Picture Story)

If you go to World Press, you can see the winners, with the photographer’s name and frequently with frustratingly minimal captions. After browsing POYi, I found this experience unsatisfying; here again were decontextualised images but rather than decontextualising from the production process in favour of the strength of the image and its journalistic significance, the image was abstracted from its value as a document and from the reason that someone thought it was worth photographing in the first place.

Contests do an important job. They do not so much reflect the “best” of an industry as define where the industry is and where it is going. It’s a place where a lot of emergent beliefs and practices – including ones that the judges themselves may respond to but not even themselves be aware of – are worked out. The professional photo community will look to the decisions of a respected jury for signals (whether or not individuals chose to base their decisions on these signals) and a few will see their careers grow through the blessing of a prize.
© Tomas Van Houtryve
© Tomas Van Houtryve, POYi 67 Photographer of the Year- Freelance/ Agency

Contest categories define how the practice of press photography is, at least “officially”, understood.  POYi’s Photographer of the Year awards are particularly telling of what the photographer’s photographer should be able to do – see Tomas Van Houtryve’s and Paul Hansen’s portfolios – just as the division of Newspaper and Freelance/ Agency Photographer of the Year categories should cause us to reflect on how photojournalism’s traditions diverge and split – and on what sits at the core of photojournalism.

At the end of the day, the contests should remind us that the definition of photojournalism is a moving target – that some photographers and pictures are not simply better than others, but that how photojournalists describe the world through their work is an ongoing project. These contests are an opportunity to assess the profession and its next steps. This year’s World Press Photo of the year by Pietro Masturzo is a powerful, complex, and subtle image, and it’s a good cue.

Leo Hsu