Best Photos in the World

© Samuel Aranda

Last week World Press Photo announced this year’s winners of their annual photo contest. World Press Photo could be said to be the Nobel Prize for photojournalists, and for 2012 Samuel Aranda from Spain brought home the most prestigious prize, the World Press Photo of the year. Kudos to Aranda for a very strong image. The photograph shows a woman holding her wounded son in her arms. It’s captured inside a mosque used as a field hospital by demonstrators against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen.

What actually surprises me of this year’s awards is the fact that a whole lot of great images have been picked by the jury. Of course you may say, it’s the most prestigious photojournalistic contest in the world. But surprisingly often I have found the many winning pictures to be quite boring and definitely not long-lasting in my memory. At least for me. So my delight seeing the result of this year was even more exuberant because of my lowered expectations from previous years.

I have often wondered by which criterions the pictures for the World Press Photo have been selected. For me it looks like pictures of war, destructions, grief and pictures taken during excess danger to the photographer would be picked as winners, no matter what other photographic qualities they lack. Going back to what I believe a good photograph is about (you may want to have a look at my post A Good Photograph, What is that? to find out about that) usually the winners would have some stopping power, but hardly anything more. They would often play on a one-dimensional level, lacking depth and lacking openings to other interpretations – thus being very literal and boring. For me it seemed like there was no evaluation of artistic or creative qualities as part of what makes a photograph stand out to excellence.

So what made the jury pick those pictures the previous years, which for me clearly wasn’t the best of the best of all photojournalistic work? I had no clue, until I read a blog posting by Alex Garcia last year, a rewarded photojournalist at Chicago Tribune. In his post 2 Essential Ingredients of Contest-Winning Photos he states that access and intimacy are the two qualities that triggers juries of photojournalistic contests. Access simply means how hard it is to get a photo and intimacy provides the personal connection for which we strive with other human beings to create, according to Garcia. I believe Alex Garcia to be absolutely right. Finally I understood what made previous winners of World Press Photo winners. The intimacy part I recognize being important, but access? I don’t really care how hard it has been to take a certain photograph, even if the photographer was shot during the process. For me it just doesn’t make the photograph any better how much hardship the photographer had to withstand. Whatever it can’t tell me while watching a photograph, doesn’t matter. Of course I might be curious about how a certain picture was taken, but that is all.

So I believe Alex Garcia’s evaluation is spot on, but it makes me a little sad on behalf of photojournalism and documentary photography. There is so much excellent work being done out there, and these are the criterions they are judge by!? No wonder I have more and more move away from pure journalistic work. Don’t get me wrong I am deeply passionate about making important stories, but the superficial news coverage has just become less and less interesting for me. I want to know why, not only if something happens.

All the better judging the result of this year’s World Press Photo. I don’t know if it signifies a change in mentally from the organizers, but I am just delighted that some really good pictures have been awarded this year. Aranda’s picture isn’t necessarily the best of the year in my opinion, but that doesn’t matter. It’s only my opinion anyway, but there can be no doubt about the fact that it is a very good photograph. If you are interested in having a look at more winning pictures from this year’s contest have a look here: 2012 World Press Photo. And here are two of my personal favourites:

© Damir Sagolj

© Brent Stirton


49 thoughts on “Best Photos in the World

  1. I am impress so much by this photographer, Samuel Aranda… So touching too. And also Damir Sagolj! Just a light in one window how being so impressive… Thank you dear Otto, as always it is so nice to read you. Have a nice day, with my love, nia

  2. I found some of the photos very disappointing. They didn’t really grab my attention or have any ‘depth.’

    By co-incidence (perhaps), I like the two you posted above. My eye was drawn to that single lit window immediately. The image is striking in that.

    I also liked Brent Stirton’s image – the lighting is superb and the framing immediately draws your eye into the photo and you feel at one with the figure.

  3. As always, you gave an honest and priceless insights that would prove important in making better , more winning worthy photograph. I too believe in human connection, as for how hard was accessing the photo, I think it’s shouldn’t be a criteria. Even our day to day life can be moving like death, sickness, grief, etc. so I agree with all you said. I like all the photos in this post. Thanks.

  4. I didn’t know that photo contest. Very interesting. I like watching photo which has strong power. However, I prefer nature, food and people smiling of photo. 🙂

  5. Capturing that single moment showing a multitude of emotions in the human experience … but I agree, what the photographers journey to get the image is much less important than the image itself.

  6. Having looked at all the photos I would have to agree. Some of them were definitely not the best composition or even really thought about, just news worthy at the time. The technical aspects of a photo are always in the back of my mind, but I have to say that my first impression is always an emotional response. Whether it be shock, a smile, a laugh, a gasp or a tear, that will be why I linger enough to then comment on composition or lighting etc. The top image here caught my attention and I just looked at it for several minutes before reading the blog. I agree with the other images you chose as well.
    Thanks Otto, for pointing out this website to see these photos.

  7. Another great post. Couldn’t agree more with your evaluation. The three photos you’ve included in your post are extraordinary.
    I could never quite tease apart what I look for in a photo, but yes, it it very much an intimacy. The access point, I don’t really get. Criterium and taste really do seem to migrate slightly from generation to generation. I’m seeing that in all the visual arts-some work that is valued but I just can’t wrap my head around it. I suppose if one works long enough, the shifting of esthetic expectations over time, can be experienced first hand. And while the brilliance of a work may stand the test of time, it may be valued a little more or less depending on the generation viewing it. Of course, I think that subjectivity of the particular judges is always a given. These are my subjective evaluations;)

    1. I think some of the contemporary art which is declared brilliant at the time, might not stand the test of time, but it’s still important because it pushes the boundaries and thus plays an important role in developing the arts. Remember, many of the great artists were never appreciated by their contemporaries.

  8. I believe the photo has to say something without the need for words. At least that’s what does it for me. And I agree with you, some of these winners look like posed, I don’t see anything extraordinary in some of them.

  9. Otto, I really enjoy reading your point of view. As an artist, it is critical to remain true to oneself. I wonder if this means your depth is bypassing worldly standards. If so, you may find yourself startling the world outside of the parameters with which people want to muck about with rules.

    Intellectualizing our creativity can be like catching a greased pig. Many of us quietly pray the pig will end up racing off, being very much the prettier.

  10. Amazing photos! I looked at the site you recommended and I could never choose a winner…or even my personal favorite. Each one is compelling! The Aranda winning photo grips my heart, so although I can’t competently critique its composition, it is a riveting photo telling quite a human story. I say congratulations to any photographer who entered this contest. And thank you, Otto, for sharing! Debra

  11. Great post, I always look at National Geographic’s “Photo of the Day” and am usually always in awe, but there are a number of times I am really dissapointed by their poor selection of images… Your perspective made me understand this much better, Thank you!

  12. I agree with a lot of what you say, Otto. And with John who sees a touch of the Pietà in the winner photo. A contrasting Pietà with a touch of contemporary conflicts.
    It is often the hottest news that wins such competitions, but there are strong photography too. Like the two Otto mentions (especially Brent Stirtons when you also read the story).
    Myself I like these two, among others: (but do not understand how the first one can be Art and entertainment)
    Nature, 1. Prize, singles:

  13. The background of any creative work changes people’s perception of the work entirely. I think that is where the rub is. You can’t force people to read artist statements to get a better grasp of your work unless the work itself entices them to do so.

    It is something as open-ended as a starless sky, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on what you make of it).

    Great post, great food for thought!

  14. You post is so timely. Recently I had a conversation with an artist friend – I was explaining to her that I never liked the result of my work from certain assignments when I did professional photography. The reason was I didn’t have an emotional connection to the job/people and it showed in my work.

  15. Hi Otto,
    Thank you for stopping by my blog this morning. Glad you enjoyed the centerpiece.
    I read your “About” section, and this post, and enjoyed them both. You take lovely pictures, and I agree with you your philosophy on creativity. Whether latent or burgeoning, it exists inside us all, needing only a focal point to bring about the inherent need we have to “create” beauty. How fortuitous that your medium was readily available to you!


  16. Just want to thank you for the recent comment. They were just inspiring my friend. Hope one day you get to experience the island rhythm yourself….everything is possible right? Have a wonderful weekend….

  17. Thanks for sharing these photos and providing so much information about these awards. It’s all new to me but I agree with you… the photographer shouldn’t have to put his/her life in danger for a photo to win an award.

  18. When a photograph makes you bring tears to your eyes, and makes you feel sadness for the people within it, then you know that you have a very good photographer on your hands. The first photograph deserved to win the award.

  19. Hello, Otto. I could not take my eyes off the Samuel Aranda photo. It is compelling. More than anything, a photo like any other art form, needs to connect to or to talk to its viewer. I guess that’s what intimacy is about. As for access, I liken it to movies with a lot of special effects. They keep upping the ante, to the extent that some movies don’t have a story to speak of anymore. It’s just one action sequence after another. At the end of the day, the audience still wants a good story. Same with photographs. Substance still has to prevail.

  20. I too have gone through all those photos and fully agree to what you have said. Some of them are really impressive while a lot of them are trite.
    But they could only select from what is available. That again throws light on the declining quality of our press photographs, in spite of so much happening and the advancing technology.

    1. I actually don’t see a decline in photo journalism, but as traditional outlets don’t want to pay for the strong photo essays and stories, photographers seek new ways to make their work available, such as books and exhibitions. Documentary photography is more and more entering the realms of art.

  21. I agree with you completely. Not long ago I saw a poorly executed painting win out over far more professional-quality work. The only thing I could discern was that the piece that won was of a dog and a child. In my opinion this was cheap sentimentality, but from a more objective point of view, I think it had to do with connection. The judges chose the connection over the quality… a lesson learned.
    The photos you shared are fascinating. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  22. You have brought up some very interesting points about winning photography. I’m really struck by the first picture of the woman and her son. It really tells a story and makes me interested in knowing more.

  23. It was great to read your point of view about World Press Photo. I believe there is nothing wrong with giving an honest opinion. Any creative person can’t survive, if he is not honest to his work and to his beliefs. When a person who has vast knowledge about his working field just like you, than we all need to listen and accept his point of view.
    I will completely agree with you, on whatever you wrote. Thank you for sharing these photographs with us, although I could not understand, what is the photograph taken by Brent Stirton is all about? For me, Damir Sagolj’s photograph is the best. The lighting, colors everything about that phootgraph is so beautiful. It just looks like a frame from my most favorite computer games, “Project IJI”. 🙂

  24. Hi Otto,
    Whether it’s a photograph a movie or a book, it’s not fair or easy to chose ONE winner among all the thousands of entries. Thanks, I enjoyed reading this.

    I’ve been following the World Press Photo awards for about 10 years now. One of my favorites was the 2006 winner – a close up of a black woman’s face with her baby’s little hand on her mouth, it was a perfect example of what you called Intimacy, as was the 2003 winner: of a little boy crying next to his recently deceased father’s open grave.

    I do sometimes go “Huh, how can that be the best photo?” A good example was the photo (I think it was 2 years ago) with the women shouting from the rooftops in Teheran, but after I read the story behind the photo I understood why the judges chose it.

    As a woman and a mother this year’s winner breaks my heart – I can’t imagine trying to comfort my child with that black curtain over my face. Brilliant composition: The white gloves, on the pink skin next to the black curtain…

  25. On looking at that photo, the first thing I noticed was her gloves. I thought it was a post-miscarriage or something like that moment. The next thing that flashed in my mind was the figure of Pieta. Indeed it’s an awesome photo! Btw thanks for visiting my blog.

  26. I agree with your sentiments.

    It makes you wonder sometimes just how competitions are judged.

    Even competitions judged by the public are influenced by how many people know an individual.

    Great post!

  27. All i can say’s : different people, different paradigm as well.
    make this a valuable experience to be better.
    Greetings from me 🙂

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