World Press Photo 09 by Paul Lowe
08 May 2009
The World Press Photo Awards days held in Amsterdam recently had something of an 'after the party has ended' feel to them, when you look around at all the wreckage and wonder how you are going to clean up all the mess, but know with some effort and imagination you can maybe get it all back into shape before your parents return...

This wasn’t just because it took place this year just after Queen’s Day, the mad party that transforms the normally clean and tidy Dutch streets into quagmires of crushed beer cans, squashed orange cowboys hats and garlands of orange balloons floating away forlornly in the morning breeze. This year too it had an extra, disturbing quality when the usually joyful celebrations turned to horror when a car careered through the crowd, killing and maiming on its way, transforming a party into a wake in seconds, bringing the world of World Press to the streets of Holland. There was a lot of talk of how to survive the recession, of how to find new ‘business models’, and of how to explore new ways of connecting with the audience, but still a sense that there is still to much mess to be cleared up before we can really set the room straight again and get on with planning the next party.

The awards have now really established them as a vital date in the photojournalistic calendar, with the unique opportunity to see 30 or so photographers present their work to an audience in the packed Felix Meritis; some excellent, some good, some not so good, but as always plenty of gems in there. For me one of the highlights was to realise the depth and breadth of the 8-year odyssey Antony Suau has engaged on after returning to the USA after his mammoth project on the transformations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This new work provides a fitting counterpart to his documentation of the decline of one of the cold war superpowers, as he has engaged with the issues that threaten to trigger the decline of the other; the divisions over the Iraq war, the far right, and of course now, his prize winning series on the economic crisis.

For once, it was satisfying to see an overall prize winning picture emerging as just the tip of the iceberg of a far larger project, and giving that project a new prominence that it richly derived. Emotional, ironic, witty and challenging, Suau’s work from America had the feel of a sustained critique of a fallen empire, the devastation the Bush legacy has left at home as much as aboard.

Stephen Mayes gave a valedictory speech as his retirement gift to WPP, beautifully presented and illustrated with over 200 of his own intimate behind the scenes images of the judging process over the last few years. With a wry smile, he offered 3 golden rules on how to win an award at WPP:

Rule 1 Is to enter! Don’t try to anticipate the jury and how they will think, just put in your best pictures.

Rule 2 Bad pictures don’t win. The discussions about winning pictures are always between good pictures

Rule 3 Get published the jury will pull out unrecognised unknown pictures but being a little familiar does sensitise the jury

But of course, he did note that statistically your best chance of winning is if you are American, male and shoot in black and white.

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