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World Press Photo Awards: Life Lessons in Images

by Meredith Mullins on June 23, 2014

African migrants hold their phones to catch a signal, life lessons in connection and migration via photojournalism (Photo © John Stanmeyer)

World Press Photo of the Year: Djibouti City
© John Stanmeyer for National Geographic

The Social Conscience of Photojournalism

In the moonlit image, the silhouetted figures hold their mobile torches, like statuesque champions of liberty. An expectation of extraterrestrials? A full-moon cult gathering?

Where are we . . . and what kind of life lessons are in progress on this mysterious night?

The story invites interpretation.

World Press Photo of the Year

In fact, this World Press Photo of the Year touches on many issues. However, it is most importantly an image of connection.

African immigrants on the shore of the Red Sea near Djibouti City hold their phones toward neighboring Somalia in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal.

The photographer, American John Stanmeyer, calls this subject of human migration an intertwining of hope and despair. The idea of moving toward a better life is always linked to the hope and natural desire to stay connected with those left behind.

Farmers burning rainforest in the Amazon to make way for crops, life lessons on issues of the planet via photojournalism (Photo © John Stanmeyer)

Deforestation in the upper Mato Grosso state of the Amazon
© John Stanmeyer

Dramatic Reminders of a World in Flux

The 2014 World Press Photo Awards, like other year-in-review collections, provide a dramatic reminder of events that shaped the world, even if only an iceberg tip of the thousands of news stories that bombard us in this age of instant information.

We are reminded of war, struggle, death, disease, disasters, causes, challenges, victory, defeat, the beauty of our planet, and the things that may contribute to its demise. All are powerful “Oh, I see” moments.

As we look at the photographs selected for this year’s World Press Awards, we travel—from the death of Mandela to the war in Syria, from a typhoon in the Philippines to the massacre in a Nairobi mall, from issues such as domestic violence and mental illness to the quiet humanness of everyday life.

A boy in South Sudan is being tested for Kala-azar, life lessons in the spread of disease in developing countries via photojournalism (Photo © John Stanmeyer)

A boy in South Sudan is tested for Kala-azar, a parasitic disease.
© John Stanmeyer

The Life of a Photojournalist

John Stanmeyer’s winning image was selected from 98,671 photographs submitted by 5,754 photographers from 132 countries.

John is a veteran photojournalist. Although he does not make his photographs with any thought of future accolades, he is “thankful and humbled” by his award this year. He also feels deeply about his fellow photojournalists and the strength of the work presented this year.

Life as a photojournalist is not easy, especially when working in war zones or underdeveloped countries, where safety and basic needs, like water and food, are far from guaranteed.

Such photographers are a rare and important breed. They are witnesses and recorders of events that emerge as history. Their job is to present truth—images of reality.

A rice-processing factory at night in Bangladesh, life lessons in survival via photojournalism (Photo © John Stanmeyer)

A rice processing factory in Rangpur, Bangladesh
© John Stanmeyer

Finding the Truth

Granted, the truth must be, to some extent, subjective. Photojournalists have assignments. They decide where, when, and at what to aim their cameras. They decide what emotion to capture and whose story to tell.

John has worked almost exclusively for National Geographic and Time for the past 25 years (with 18 of his photographs making the cover of Time).

When asked what are his favorite kinds of assignments, he answers, candidly, “all.” But he is especially rewarded by assignments “that are connected to issues I feel passionate about.”

Between assignments, he is working on a book about HIV/AIDS in Asia and has released a book about Balinese culture, Island of the Spirits, from his time living on Bali.

Men rowing in Peru to extract bird droppings for fertilizer, life lessons in survival via photojournalism (Photo © John Stanmeyer)

Peruvian men rowing to Los Checos Islands to extract bird droppings for fertilizer
© John Stanmeyer

Inspirations and Challenges

Has he ever had an image in his viewfinder that he decided not to record? No. But he explains, “I’m always sensitive to the events, people, or situation taking place, trying to balance the need to share reality with the human elements of the situation or individual.”

When asked what inspires him as a photographer, John answers, “I’m more interested in what inspires or drives all of us as humans, rather than me personally as a photographer.”

“I don’t believe I or any individual can completely change the world, but collectively, we can seriously effect change.”

He believes that if a photograph can make one person think about or take action on issues important to humanity, then the “tool of photography” has been well used.

Life lessons of the most powerful kind.

A natural well in the Yucatan, life lessons in the preciousness of water via photojournalism (Photo © John Stanmeyer)

The underworld of a natural well in the Yucatan (Dzitnup, Mexico)
© John Stanmeyer for National Geographic

You’ll find more of John Stanmeyer’s work here and info about Islands of the Spirit here. His compelling blog provides a realistic look at life as a photojournalist. 

The World Press Photo Awards exhibit is on global tour and is currently on display at the Galerie Azzedine Alaïa in Paris until June 29, 2014. It is also presented in several other cities concurrently. Here is the full list of venues in 45 countries.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.  


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