An interview with World Press Photo representative about changes in conflicts

An interview with World Press Photo representative about changes in conflicts

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Interview by Uyen Ly
Translated and edited by Giang Nguyen
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Uyen Ly from Hanoi Grapevine interviewed representative of World Press Photo Foundation (WPP), Ms. Sanne Schim van der Loeff – Exhibitions Manager and Curator about history, changes in the digital age and controversial aspects of the organisation.

Sanne Schim van der Loeff – The curator and manager of the World Press Photo Exhibition stands in front of the exhibition area at Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Dec 2019.
Photo: Uyên Ly


A dreamy moment in the The Migrant Caravan photo series about the immigrants of Pieter Ten Hoopen – which won the Photo Story of the Year award, World Press Photo


Uyen Ly: The World Press Photo exhibition showed the photos which often deal with conflicts and political issues. It’s so sensitive, particularly the war stories. So how do you manage the political sides of organizing such an event?

Sanne: The good thing about World Press Photo is that at least the organizing partners know what they’re getting themselves into. They understand what it’s about. We also tell our partners, with our annual show, and with some shows here as well, “you either take everything or nothing”, because we think we have to do that out of respect for the photographers, out of respect for the stories. I think for us, we understand that these stories are sometimes complicated, but we also think that there is value in showing them to people, and that’s also what we try to communicate to our partners.

When there is political sensitivity or things that people are uncomfortable with, we also think you either accept that or you don’t, and if it’s not a possibility, we understand that and we respect that, but then this show cannot be shown there. What we do have now is over the past three years, we’ve started developing new contents, new exhibitions for these kinds of locations where our annual show is perhaps not possible.

Uyen Ly: When you’re saying that in recent years you’ve become more proactive in where you want your exhibitions to be, can you give some examples?

Sanne: World Press Photo is an organization founded in the Netherlands, so of course, we have been since the start of it very Western dominated. In the past, it was always quite easy to have exhibitions in Europe, which is quite normalized. What we wanted to do is, we want to bring our stories- we want to be relevant everywhere. So we started looking, “Okay, where do we not have enough representation?”, I think mainly that was – and that still is – across the African continent, and in Southeast Asia also, here.

I was in Tanzania a few weeks ago, in Dar es Salaam, their capital. Their freedom of the press, freedom of expression is not a given, they’re not normalized there – there’s still quite a lot of pressure from the government. So there we worked with the Dutch embassy and with a local partner together to get the exhibition there with some side events so we can start a conversation about that.

One very interesting conversation I had here was about some of the pictures that were our World Press Photo of the Year winner that were dealing with the war in Vietnam in the 70s, and trying to understand how I, as a Western person, was taught about that war and how that war is perceived here and educated here. With side events, they deal with many different topics, but what we want to do is an exchange of information between one group of people with another, and we can hopefully try to learn from each other.

Uyen Ly: World Press Photo has been around for six decades, so there must be quite some changes. Can you reflect on the key changes starting from recently and then across history, and why they happened?

Sanne: Five years ago we got a new director, Lars Boering, and the key of what he wanted to do is to try and make World Press Photo, as an organization, less reactive and more proactive to the industry – one of the things we did is that we became more proactive in telling our stories all over the world. You know, we’re called World Press Photo, not Europe Press Photo, trying to make that “World” aspect true in our exhibition also. If you look at the history of photojournalism, most like any history, it’s very dominated by Western men, white men. And I think over the past five or six years, World Press Photo has realized how problematic that is.

So we started creating these initiatives to try and diversify our industry, or at least the work we do. The 6×6 Talent Program is one of those initiatives to highlight talent from all across the world. The African Photojournalism Database is an initiative that we did with an Instagram page called Everyday Africa. Since the past, entrance in our contests from the African continent, that has never been more than 2%. It’s really, really low, people taking part in our contests, and we really want to change that.

But I think one of the key changes is, if you want a diverse set of stories in your exhibitions, you need a diverse jury. In order for our jury to be complete, we need an equal amount of men and women, people from all regions of the world, with different jobs, different professions in the industry. And that’s become a strict requirement for our jury. Last year was the first time that we did that very successfully. I dare say you can see this in the results of our contest as well, in the exhibition, because we have more women in this exhibition than ever before, we have lots of different types of storytelling – very visual approaches, very conflict-related approaches. It’s very diverse.

Decreasing number of Vietnamese entrants in the World Press Photo Contest over the years (from left to right)

Vietnam 62 27 41 42 30 27 12 14 14 14 69 11 12 8 9 7 8

Source: World Press Photo

Uyen Ly: Have you ever faced any kind of controversy or difficulty in terms of prize winners?

Sanne: I think every winner is always controversial. I think this is the challenge with a relatively well-known organization, is that every single prize is always controversial, so there’s always someone who’s going to be angry about something. But that’s also good because it forces us to have a conversation and a dialogue, a discussion about “Okay, what are the things that matter to you?”

The culprit hold the gun was used to shoot and kill Ambassador (Russia in Turkey) – Burhan Ozbilici’s controversial work


But you know, over the past years, there have been problems with the photograph from Burhan Ozbilici – people were quite angry because they said it represented a very hateful image. It was the guy who shot the Ambassador, you know, the image where he’s holding up the gun. People were upset because they said this was a representation of hate, and why should we represent that? At the same time, the jury at the time said, and I get that too: “Well, that’s exactly what we wanted. We want people to understand that we’re now living in a time where people are becoming more and more hateful, and we want people to be more conscious of that hate so that they can do something about it.”

Uyen Ly: I have a question about how things are changing a lot in terms of technology and telling stories – visuals like photographs are very strong, and people also have videos, selfies, all kinds of different tools to express themselves. So how does World Press Photo see those changes and how do you respond to that?

Sanne: Ten years ago, we introduced a contest called the Digital Storytelling Contest. We saw these changes happening in technology where a lot of visual journalists were not just using photography anymore – they were using words and videos and music and animation and all these things. We wanted to respect that new form of journalism, so that’s what the Digital Storytelling Contest does.

(Story of photographer Issa Touma was told in Digital technique)

Secondly, with new technology, you know, phones becoming better and better quality and all this kind of thing, you see that everywhere – the effects. You see that in our photo contest as well. Forough Alaei did a story on female activists in football stadiums in Iran, and she used her phone to take these photographs. Because with her phone, that allowed her access to the stadium, whereas with a big camera, they would have stopped her. Things like phones bring a challenge because everybody is a photographer, in a way, but at the same time you see photojournalists, visual journalists now get the chance to use a particular medium as a tool because of particular reasons. Now they can choose – if they use a phone, it’s because they do that for a particular reason: to get access, or to tell a more intimate story. I think that it is a really great development that you have more flexibility as a photographer to tell your story in a different way.

Uyen Ly: In terms of technical requirements, are there any differences when you select people taking pictures from their phone versus from their camera?

Sanne: I mean, not really, because in the end, what the jury is always looking for across every category is that they’re looking for the aesthetics of the photo to work with the content. The aesthetics and the story, they have to make each other better. Whether you take that on a phone or a fancy camera, the aesthetics need to have a purpose for the story, so that doesn’t really change. The jury also doesn’t know what the photograph is taken on when they’re judging the pictures, because everything is anonymous. So when they’re looking at a picture, they have no idea whether it was taken on a Nikon, whatever, or Fujifilm, or on an iPhone.

Uyen Ly: Sounds really encouraging for photographers who really want to enter.

Sanne: I hope so. I think the changes in technology have absolutely given us challenges, the industry as a whole, because all of us can take pictures. But there’s a very interesting point that someone once made, and that is that even if everybody is a photographer, and all of us are taking pictures all the time, the difference is that a visual journalist, a photojournalist, will always go the extra mile – they’ll always do the extra research, and that’s what sets them apart from the rest, because that’s their purpose, that’s what they’re doing. Whereas me myself, if I take a picture of something, that’s all I’m doing. That’s also why I really don’t think that technology is, in that sense, a problem. I think it’s a good thing, specifically for younger photographers who might not have had the same financial support as the well-known photographers in the world. They have to be more creative with how they approach a story.

Uyen Ly: World Press Photo is a non-profit organization, so it relies on sponsorships and partnerships. How do you keep yourself independent from influences?

Sanne: That’s a really important question, and that’s very important to us. The main way we make our money to sustain ourselves is actually through the rental of our exhibition. The way our exhibition generally works is that we rent it out to our partners, and they pay a rental fee, and that goes back into the organization.

The Dutch Postcode Lottery, which is an independent organization as well, and it’s a very big organization that funds non-profits, good causes. They have been supporting World Press Photo for a long time, and they’re an organization that doesn’t interfere. And then lastly we also rely on individuals that want to help us, and that’s only a small part, but there are always individuals with a lot of money that want to invest in a good cause, and we try to get them involved as well. Now of course, we’re always looking for sponsors and people who can support us financially. But as you say, we are a non-profit, and we don’t want to be affected by people’s opinions, we don’t want somebody, or a big organization, to start saying what they want from us. So for us, it’s incredibly important that we maintain that independence. But most of the people that want to work with us, if they want to sponsor us, they also want that. They’re not doing it because they want to have a say, they’re doing it because they want to have exposure connected to an organization that they respect and believe in.

The last thing I want to say about that is that we’re very conscious of partnering up with organizations that are ethically sound. I don’t see us ever working with, like an oil company for example, or a weapons dealer or something. Those are the types of organization that we don’t ethically want to be supported by.

Uyen Ly: Thank you for your time


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