Why They Won

Published by MJR on April 17th, 2008 in General | 7 Comments »

as a pre-curser to this entry and all following diatribes.. i have a horrible relationship with my shift key and capitalization is not listed on my cv as a strength. i do however promise proper grammar and spelling to the best of my abilities.

we are now at the end of yet another season of world renowned photo competitions that transform hopefuls into poster-children for tomorrow’s great image makers. i can never help but ask myself two questions. “who chose these photos to win, and what is this photographer really trying to communicate.” i would also love to shrink down to a 1:60 scale model of myself and perch quietly on the tip of the pens that ultimately chose the winners.. but in a perfect world i’d also be photo editor at large for The Times Magazine but Ms. Kathy Ryan is doing a fine job without me so i’ll digress.

i’ve reviewed the World Press Photo Awards (WPPA), National Press Photographer’s Best of Photojournalism (NPPA), and the College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) and found what some might call more of the same, “if it bleeds it leads” imagery. While photojournalists’ lenses will always focus on the horror presently unfolding throughout the world (if not us, who will?), the way we choose to communicate with our public will constantly shift. Because we rely on the still image to reach our viewers, many photojournalists found themselves up against a wall of ethics and morality when digital photography/digital editing started taking over photo desks around the globe. “How much is too much? When is it appropriate? How do I keep my images looking fresh, signature, and most importantly – real?”

I’m glad to see that we may have found a happy medium with post processing, and this year’s winners across the board look like they have embraced the dslrs as well as the digital technology that lets photographers inject life into files that look routinely synthetic. Because we no longer have the option (given the shortened timeframe of digital workflow/publishing) to work with hi-con and hi-saturation films.. we are left to utilize programs like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom (Beta 2 is excellent), and Apple’s Aperture to manipulate (yes i said manipulate) the pixels into a final product that suits our vision.

enough said. Here are some winners from the aforementioned contests.. why I think they won or deserved to win, and also what I believe the images are trying to communicate. i admit to being a photojournalism fiend, and any comments hereafter should be considered the product of my belief that the camera was invented for this pursuit above all others.

Francesco Zizola on contract with Fortune Magazine looked into the illegal commerce happening throughout Africa. While HIV/AIDS/Malaria remain the largest humanitarian issues in Africa on this continent, the problem of prevention takes root in the inability of African countries to legitimize industries that seem to bring on harm more than benefit. This shot is a prime example of the disparity in Uganda. The convicted, seen in a jail cell awaiting “trial,” are standing with the evidence that will be used to incriminate them. Imagine what would happen at the LA county jail if Inmate John Smith walked into the holding cell with a 12ft saw. This photo communicates the differences between my world, and theirs both in the justice system but also in the means for survival. Aesthetically the bold, yet stone-washed look of the blues and blacks give a sense of hard labor and that small blue tag at the tip of the saw brings the whole frame into an aesthetic balance. I’ve always struggled with shooting color photos, because i am always conscious of the final product being in color and therefore i shoot for color. I find that my color work lacks the attention to shape, form, and composition that i find in my black & white images, but Zizola had no issues there.

I have to admit my bias early on towards college photographers, being one myself, and I always judge cpoy with more scrutiny than say, WPPA, because as my peers I cant help but pit my own work against theirs. Dominic Nahr made a frame that encompassed the chaos of the moment. This image is about disorientation, a break in the social contract between the public and the police, and as Nahr titled the image, the “failed atempt on Freedom.” Ive shot alot of protests in the past and I know how difficult it is to think and see clearly in these moments.. so for a young photographer I commend Nahr on his vision with this image.

When i look at this picture i feel as if i’m sitting across the table from the most dangerous man in the room. Gerbahaye puts us in the hot seat, and the inquisitive gaze of our pseudo-cowboy figure makes me nervous. the photographers at Agence Vu have always represented top notch PJ work, and this story on the Congo shifts the focus away from simply crime and poverty and onto the facets of Congolese society that raise question… “what happens next?” I also love the symmetry of the man’s hands (center frame) and the crossed arms of his sunglasses laying on the table.

John Freidah dove into a subject that many in America find themselves grappling with: “What the hell happened to our economy?” While the text-hounds are punching away at keyboards trying to jot down the Fed’s latest analysis of a dwindling American economy, Freidah looked at those who are paying the price for the US’ poorly managed economy. I feel like Americans become fatigued with stories such as the foreclosures in the wake of the Sub-prime mortgage crisis when we read and re-read headlines about millions of americans losing their homes. The figures become intangible, and we are often unable to relate to those who are hit hardest. This story takes an honest look at the effects of the economic crisis. If only it had run A1 on the NYT, as Americans we might have a better understanding of the consequences of our mismanaged economy.

College Photographer of the Year Travis Dove blew me away. Plain and simple. This portrait is alive.. in the moment.. and anyone who has shot chest deep in water knows the anxiety that ensues. This took the gold prize for portraits in CPOY, and there is something fascinating about an older woman swimming in a lake with full makeup and her hair done… not to mention her toy-dog along for the ride. Thats one tough bitch!

Imagine tip-toeing through a wasteland of used hyperdermic needles, which might as well be landmines, considering they may be infected with incurable diseases that ripple throughout the developing world. I really loved this shot for its gorgeous bokeh.. something about it really gives me a sense of how polluted this area is. While i cant help but recall Nachtwey’s frame of a needle stitched between the toes of an innocent Indonesian child, this frame stands apart for me and highlights the good-will of people caught in the cycle of poverty and crime in developing countries. People DO want to help themselves and others, and that is what this frame is saying.

I dont have much to say about this image other than… as an environmental portrait Jake nailed it. Bravo. Framing, tonality, and an underlying message were all delivered clearly and without ambiguity. Our subject remembers those who came before her – and she is aptly framed in the reflection of her fellow soldiers who will follow her into battle when the time comes. I have a deep respect for the military, and this frame really identifies with the camaraderie i have found while working amongst members of the military.

This is the final image i’m including because i believe this past year was THE YEAR OF MIKE KAMBER. With all due respect to Damon Winter & Todd Heisler … i think Kamber is the hardest working man in PJ. His multimedia piece titled “Deadly Search for Missing Soldiers” highlights the experience of the American soldier, what they are going through on a daily basis, despite our opinion of the Iraq War.. lives are being lost on both sides, and i feel that the American soldier is often forgotten. Mike Kamber worked to tell their story.. and i encourage you all to view THIS MULTIMEDIA PRESENTATION before passing judgement on the selection of work from WPPA.

As my interest in photojournalism grew over the years I always looked to the big contests listed above as a point of reference for the best work out there.. i truly believe the only way to become a great photographer is by studying the work of those who came before you.. but the more i look at the winners circles it becomes apparent that the first place photo isnt always the best. This year in particular i felt that the Pulitzer winners didnt stand close to the work of CPOY.. and i was also really unhappy with alot of the BOP first place winners. Remember that a small panel of individuals, 4-5 judges, are determining the “best of” and I feel like we are still in a transitional moment when the traditional and neo-classical photojournalists and photo editors are separated into two camps. I think the most important thing to consider when you view work in these contests is to really take a moment and ask yourself, “what is the photographer trying to communicate to me and the media at large” … the topics that already made front-page news usually resurface in these awards, but i think the true victory for many photographers in these contests is when work that routinely got bumped to B12 make it into the winners circle. for those of us who didn’t make it to that final table: keep doing the work. who knows.. maybe we’ll have an MJR POY one of these days.

Thanks for reading through.. leave your agreements and disagreements below.. i’ll make sure to respond to all comments.

7 Responses to “Why They Won”

  1. Dave Says:

    April 17th, 2008 at 9:24 pm


    Thank you.

    I havee been waiting for this blog forever and a day.

    Something run by young up and comers, a ddeveloping record of the experience, not a fond recollection of a seasoned old vet.

    This is what the blogisphere is for.

    The weekly uploads I expected, thats pretty standard. But for Mustafah to write a post like that is incredible. Showing by example, giving advice in a manner that is easy to understand for most photogs is great. Keep em’ coming.

    And Matts post about his winners is great. I want to hear what you guys think and feel about the world of photojournalism. Maybe Rob could post his best of Fashion for the past year on a future post. People that follow this site and blog I think will care.

    I also agree with you on the Pulizter prize for photo essay, I was really suprised to see them give the famous award to a pj who did pretty much the exact same story that someone from the Sac Bee did and won last year. I thought that was pretty weak, considering the years work by Winter, Jao Silva, Paolo Pellegrin, Morris and many many others. but those are just awards, and while they are highly regarded, they are only awards.

    I’d like to see more. . . multimedia, slideshows, maybe a little bidy flash?

    Maybe a voice interview with each photog, that would be nice. just thinkin’.

    Great work guys, keep the site simple and fresh. You got me watching.

  2. Harrison Says:

    April 18th, 2008 at 10:39 am

    I agree with most of the sentiments expressed above – really enjoyed the commentary and views on the photos, and for drawing them to our attention.

    Will be follwing the blog, keep up the great stuff!

    - Harrison

  3. Ian Witlen Says:

    April 18th, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I have to agree with you. A lot of the imagery they select is most definitely bloody, but I don’t feel that the images are necessarily top notch. I could probably go on a rant, but I’ll save that for another time.

  4. mustafah Says:

    April 18th, 2008 at 6:27 pm


    this should be a forum for both sides of the coin. so long as the opinion is expressed reasonably and without crudeness, i don’t see a reason why it should be withheld? let’s hear it!

  5. Jules Says:

    April 20th, 2008 at 7:52 am

    Hey Mustafa. I got your not and have been reading the entries here. It’s all very well written and the content is interesting!

    I have this in my RSS feed and will be checking it for updates daily!


  6. cheap digital photo frames Says:

    April 2nd, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Haha ^^ nice, is there a section to follow the RSS feed

  7. Wes Says:

    April 30th, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    I loved every single one of these photos, with the exception Jake Stevens’ shot of the Cadets at Ft. Knox. It doesn’t convey a story to me, which is what, to my limited knowledge, photojournalism is about. I see a lot of these half-reflection half through the glass shots, and it is starting to become almost a gimmick.

    Super props to the CPOY portrait winner, and also to Gerbahaye’s Congo shot. Those were my personal favorites.