How World Press Photo Became a Major Photojournalism Competition

Back in 1955, when the first World Press Photo competition was held, there were only 300 photographs submitted. Bird In Flight recalls the history of the competition in which a victory today is considered to be one of the most important awards in photojournalism.

Each year, the World Press Photo selection committee receives 100,000 entries from applicants for the right to be known as the best documentary photographer. Bird In Flight took a look at how the competition developed and what has changed over half a century.


The history of World Press Photo started in 1955 when members of the Dutch Association of Journalists, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the national Zilveren Camera prize, decided to award it to their foreign colleagues in addition to Dutch photographers. The first contest received around 300 pictures from 42 photographers who represented 11 different countries. At that time, entries were only accepted in four different categories: “News” and “Sport” for single images, and “Feature Stories” and “Photojournalism” for submissions of a photo series. A decision was made in December, 1955, to turn the one-time event into a yearly international contest for photojournalists. This is also how the tradition to hold a large joint-exhibition for the winners’ submissions started.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_01.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1955, Mogens von Haven. A competitor tumbles off his motorcycle during the Motorcross World Championship at the Volk Mølle race course.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_02.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1956, Helmuth Pirath. A German World War II prisoner, released by the Soviet Union, is reunited with his daughter. The child had not seen her father since she was one-year-old.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_03.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1962, Héctor Rondón Lovera. Priest Luis Padillo offers last rites to a loyalist soldier who is mortally wounded by a sniper during military rebellion against President Bétancourt at Puerto Cabello naval base in Venezuela.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_04.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1963, Malcolm W. Browne. Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sets himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.”}

The World Press Photo organization is not affiliated with any government and is headquartered in Amsterdam. Around thirty employees currently work there, who are mainly involved in traveling exhibitions and educational programs held by WPP Academy.


The structure of the contest has changed along with the evolution of photo and media formats: a separate category for color photos appeared in 1965, and in 1970, the “Feature Stories” category was split into two separate categories, one for news and the other for special interest stories. In 1969, a special prize was created for documentary photos, without which “a picture of the past year would look incomplete,” and the first winning photo in this category was a photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

By 1975, ten major categories were created, and these categories are still used by WPP to this day.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Buzz-Aldrin.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1969, Neil Armstrong. Astronaut Edwin Buzz Aldrin places the lunar seismometer on the moon’s surface.”}


The first WPP jury consisted of five representatives from different countries: Great Britain, West Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. A representative from the Eastern Bloc countries joined them in 1956. During the Cold War judges from the USA and from the USSR were both included to the selection committee, and more often than not their votes canceled out each other’s. A children’s jury, apart from the main jury, which consisted of school children from different countries, awarded a special prize participated in the voting from 1984 until 2003. Now, the WPP judges’ choices welcome diversity; each year the jury is composed of a new group of professionals from different regions and cultures.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_01.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The WPP Award days, 1955. (World Press Photo Archive.)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_02.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The jury of the 1959 Photo Contest. (Morris Gordon)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_03.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The 1973 Photo Contest jury. (Bart Nieuwenhuijs)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_04.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The 1976 Photo Contest jury. (World Press Photo Archive.)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_05.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The 1978 Photo Contest jury. (World Press Photo Archive.)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_06.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The 1978 Photo Contest jury. (World Press Photo Archive.)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_07.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Judging the photo contest. (World Press Photo Archive.)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_08.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Simon Clyne (center), picture editor of Daily Mirror and a chair of 1959 jury, with his fellow judges. (World Press Photo Archive.)”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPJURY_09.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “The 1986 Photo Contest jury. (World Press Photo Archive.)”}

Ethics of Photojournalism

One of the guiding principles of WPP is that the power of great documentary photos lies not within the quality of the composition or style, but to what extent a photo reflects the direction of the movement of humanity. Therefore, many of the winners’ works have carried political undertones that occasionally generate controversy about the nature of press photography, its ethics and authenticity.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Arko-Datta.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2004, Arko Datta. A woman mourns a relative killed in the tsunami. On December 26, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggered a series of deadly waves that traveled across the Indian Ocean, wreaking havoc in nine Asian countries, and causing fatalities as far away as Somalia and Tanzania.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_19.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2006, Spencer Platt. Young Lebanese drive down a street in Haret Hreik, a bombed neighborhood in southern Beirut.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_20.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2007, Tim Hetherington. A soldier of Second Platoon, Battle Company of the Second Battalion of the US 503rd Infantry Regiment sinks onto an embankment in the Restrepo bunker at the end of the day.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_21.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2008, Anthony Suau. Detective Robert Kole of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office enters a home, following mortgage foreclosure and eviction. He needs to check that the owners have vacated the premises, and that no weapons have been left lying around.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_22.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2009, Pietro Masturzo. Women shout their dissent from a Tehran rooftop on 24 June, following Iran’s disputed presidential election.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_23.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2010, Jodi Bieber. Bibi Aisha, an 18-year-old woman from Oruzgan province in Afghanistan, fled back to her family home from her husband’s house, complaining of violent treatment. The Taliban arrived one night, demanding Bibi be handed over to face justice. After a Taliban commander pronounced his verdict, Bibi’s brother-in-law held her down and her husband sliced off her ears and then cut off her nose. Bibi was abandoned, but later rescued by aid workers and the U.S. military.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_24.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2011, Samuel Aranda. A veiled woman holds a wounded relative inside a mosque used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_25.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “2014, John Stanmeyer. African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City at night raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. Djibouti is a common stop-off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East.”}

The latest precedent had happened this year, when the award given to the Italian photographer Giovanni Troillo and his series, “The Dark Heart of Europe,” which, according to Troillo, shows the Belgian city of Charleroi. After an announcement by the mayor of Charleroi, Paul Magnette, and a special investigation done at the request of WPP, it turned out that the picture may have been staged and that it was actually taken in Brussels. In interviews with TIME and The New York Times Troillo denies any wrongdoing, saying that he was mistaken and that he indicated the wrong city through his own inattentiveness by filling out the application for WPP in a hurry.

The case of Troillo is not the only one in the history of WPP. According to the new managing director at WPP, Lars Boering, about 20% of this year’s finalists’ photos were disqualified because of attempts at manipulation. “Our contest rules clearly state that the content of the image should not be altered. […] It seems some photographers can’t resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing either by removing small details to ‘clean up’ an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes a material change to the image,” he explains.

Having drawn attention to such a negative trend, the WPP administration decided to raise the issue of standards in photojournalism among documentary photographers themselves and has published a report on image manipulation. “There is clearly an urgent need to take this matter further. Over the coming months, we will be engaging in further dialogue with the international photojournalistic community to explore what we can learn from all this, and how we can create a deeper understanding of issues involved in the application of post-processing standards in professional photojournalism. We want to keep the standards high,” said Boering.

Historical Heritage of WPP

The prize hasn’t merely influenced the development of photojournalism in general, but created cultural and historical impact. As a result, many photographs have become the witnesses of history such as: the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China, documentary photographs of a Vietnamese war, presidential elections in Chile, conflict between civilians and police in Cape Town and many others.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_05.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1965, Kyoichi Sawada. A mother and her children wade across a river to escape US bombing. The US Air Force had evacuated their village because it was suspected of being used as a base camp by the Vietcong.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/WPPHISTORY_06.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1968, Eddie Adams. South Vietnam national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a suspected Viet Cong member.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Salvador-Allende.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1973, Orlando Lagos. Democratically elected President Salvador Allende moments away from death during military coup at Moneda presidential palace in Chile.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Demulder.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1976, Françoise Demulder.Palestinian refugees in district La Quarantaine.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Sadayuki-Mikami.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1978, Sadayuki Mikami. A demonstrator is engulfed in flames of the molotov cocktail he was about to throw at the police during protests against the construction of the New Tokyo International Airport. The original Narita Airport plan was unveiled in 1966. To acquire the initial land, the government had to evict protesting landowners. Violent clashes between the opponents and authorities resulted in 13 deaths, including five police officers. The new airport opened in May 1978.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Manuel-P-rez-Barriopedro.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1981, Manuel Pérez Barriopedro. Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero Molina orders everyone to remain seated and be quiet after armed Guardia Civil soldiers stormed the Assembly Hall of the Spanish Parliament. Three hundred deputies and cabinet members were in session to vote upon the succession of premier Suarez. They were released next morning after having been held hostage for almost 18 hours; the coup was a failure.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Alon-Reininger.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1986, Alon Reininger. Ken Meeks’ (42) skin is marked with lesions caused by Aids-related Kaposi’s Sarcoma.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Georges-M-rillon.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1990, Georges Merillon. Family and neighbors mourn the death of Elshani Nashim (27), killed during a protest against the Yugoslavian government’s decision to abolish the autonomy of Kosovo.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_James-Nachtwey.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1992, James Nachtwey. A mother carries her dead child to the grave, after wrapping it in a shroud according to local custom. A bad drought coupled with the effects of civil war caused a terrible famine in Somalia which claimed the lives of between one and two million people over a period of two years, more than 200 a day in the worst affected areas. The international airlift of relief supplies which started in July was hampered by heavily armed gangs of clansmen who looted food storage centers and slowed down the distribution of the supplies by aid organizations.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Larry-Towell.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1993, Larry Towell. Boys raise toy guns in a gesture of defiance. The Palestinian uprising, which began in December 1987, strengthened the Arab population in their determination to fight the occupying force.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Lucian-Perkins.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1995, Lucian Perkins. A bus on the road leading to Grozny during fighting between Chechen independence fighters and Russian troops. The civil war which erupted when President Yeltsin sent troops to the rebellious province in December 1994 was still dragging on months later. When the Chechen fighters fled Grozny, the capital, where the war had claimed a horrendous human and material toll, Russian troops pursued them into the countryside to the south and east.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Hocine.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1997, Hocine. A woman cries outside the Zmirli Hospital, where the dead and wounded were taken after a massacre in Bentalha.”},
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WPP_Larsen.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “1999, Claus Bjørn Larsen. A man walks the streets in one of the largest gathering points for ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing violence in Kosovo.”}

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