“The psychological component of violence”: Alexander Godulla on the World Press Photo 2019
Yesterday evening (11 April), the World Press Photo Foundation awarded its World Press Photo of the Year prize in Amsterdam. No international photo competition attracts more attention. Professor Alexander Godulla received his doctorate in 2009 with a study on the Foundation’s activities and has been heavily involved in its work ever since. In an interview, he talks about this year’s winning photo, the discussions that often accompany it, and the question of what makes a good World Press Photo.
Professor Godulla, this year a picture of a crying girl from Honduras, who is being arrested together with her mother as an illegal immigrant in Texas, was chosen as World Press Photo of the Year. Why exactly did this photo win?
Because it picks up on a highly controversial issue and shows the viewer directly what it means for the people affected. Young Yanela Sanchez stands crying in the middle of the picture. She cannot step back, because a seemingly enormous car towers right behind her. In front of her stands her mother, her hands on the car, while a police officer searches her from behind. The photographer has chosen a low angle, cutting off the two adults’ heads. By doing so, he takes us to the same level as a child, which makes the situation appear particularly threatening. But that alone is not why the photo won. It is deserving of the award because of the references it contains to many current discourses. At first glance, this is of course the zero-tolerance policy proclaimed by US President Donald Trump for illegal border crossings from Mexico to the US. But it is also about migration as a whole and the social problems associated with globalisation. This is why the jury members used words such as surprising, unique and relevant to describe the picture. At the same time, they highlighted the psychological component of violence, which has not been seen in this form in other World Press Photos of the Year so far.
What are the implications of this decision for US photographer John Moore, who took the photo in June 2018?
Sometimes the prize goes to people who are still in an early stage of their career or who are completely unknown. Then, of course, the award is of immense importance. This isn’t the case with John Moore. He has already won the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert Capa Gold Medal, which is awarded for outstanding war reports. So this World Press Photo of the Year is rather a confirmation that he is currently one of the leading personalities in the field of photojournalism. The prize money of 10,000 euros is of little consequence. What’s more important is that Moore’s photo will be the face, as it were, of the global exhibition that attracts millions of people every year. World Press Photo doesn’t hide this exhibition in galleries, but deliberately shows it in places like shopping malls and train stations. In addition, Moore’s photo will be printed large on the Foundation’s yearbook, which primarily reaches people who actually work in photojournalism. He will thus define a recognisable standard, which experience has shown is taken up by young photographers and integrated into their own work.
Often, the announcement of the jury’s decision is followed by heated debate. Why is that?
First of all, this has to do with the sheer size of the competition: the World Press Photo of the Year is chosen from tens of thousands of photos submitted by thousands of professional photographers. Given the extremely high quality of the material, whittling the entries down to a single image will inevitably spark discussion. It’s also due to the content of the image itself: the winning photo always deals with a theme that is particularly important from the point of view of journalism. The jury’s decision is thus indirectly linked to the message that last year a very specific problem was of central importance for humanity. Usually this is a war, a catastrophe or, like this year, a social problem. Since of course only one photo can win, equally important topics lose out. What’s more, press photography can only ever show an excerpt from reality. If that excerpt does not correspond to the world view of the viewer, this can provoke annoyance and rejection. And, of course, it depends on the way it is communicated: the themes mentioned regularly manifest themselves in the portrayal of real people who are suffering or even dead, which is often difficult for audiences to accept and regularly causes outrage.
What causes this outrage?
In our society there is a deeply rooted norm according to which people in need should not be photographed. Children are usually depicted laughing, but rarely crying. This year’s winning image consistently violates this norm in order to draw the public’s attention to what’s happening at the border. People who photograph victims of car accidents are rightly criticised as rubbernecks. Although post-mortem photography – which portrayed recently deceased relatives or famous people – was common in the late 19th century, it would be considered disrespectful today. In certain situations, press photography ignores all these conventions and instead follows its own professional standards. It is actually a tool that should create publicity and translate complex or even abstract themes into concrete imagery. Unfortunately, the fate of human beings is particularly suitable for this, because we are empathic beings.
What makes a good World Press Photo of the Year?
There are three obvious ingredients: the topic is highly relevant. The technique is flawless. The composition perfectly accentuates the content of the image. But there can also be something else, something harder to capture, which world-famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson for example described as the “decisive moment”. What is meant by this is that a photo should ideally show the precise, fleeting fraction of a second that conveys the content better than any other. In at times gruelling discussions, an international jury searches for the one photo that contains all this. Incidentally, this is done entirely by professionals, who themselves work for picture agencies or important magazines, for example as editors or photographers. It should be noted that anyone who wants to take part in the competition must also work in photojournalism. This is an unshakeable principle of the competition. It wasn’t even relaxed in 1969 when a photo of the moon landing was submitted; Neil Armstrong was not recognised as a professional photographer despite his enormous prominence.
Prof. Dr. Alexander Godulla
Institute of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 9735742