World Press Photography: Photos that Speak Louder than Words

It is a Friday evening,  April 21. The Easter fair is in full swing in Dam Square, Amsterdam, there’s the smell of Dutch delicacies and excited screams from the rides.

The sky half-heartedly rains, but it is not enough to put off the swarms of tourists in the city’s central square. We arrive at 8 pm to Canon Night, an after-hours viewing of the World Press Photo (WPP) Exhibition 2017 in the beautiful Nieuwe Kerk. The atmosphere is informal as the winning photographers stand next to their work and chat to guests as they walk around the exhibition.


World Press Photo Foundation

Laurent Van de Stockt
Laurent Van der Stockt’s Offensive on Mosul: General News, first prize singles (Maclean, 2017)

The WPP foundation began its life in Amsterdam in 1955 from a group of Dutch photographers looking to expose their work to an international audience. It is now a world-renowned and prestigious annual photojournalism affair. The World Press Photo contest is now in its 60th year. The winning photos are touring 45 countries this year with an expected audience of four million people. The contest celebrates visual journalism and advocates for free speech, expression and press. The winners of this year’s contest reinforce the need for honest, and accurate reporting in a society that has taken to alternative facts and censorship.


Temporality of a Photo’s reception

We upload millions of photos every day. Anyone and everyone can be a subject, both consciously and unconsciously. Our social media feeds are cluttered with #foodporn, #datenights and #holiday. The people are snap-happy and we’ll be living in a future soon where an undocumented personal moment is an oddity. Meanwhile, our social media and news outlets surround us with photos of human suffering, war and poverty. It is a sad truth that for the most part we have become desensitised to global tragedy. Wars rage on, the climate gets warmer, and people become increasingly displaced. A news photo might stir an audience’s emotions, however, it is usually short-lived with the arrival of something more gripping, something more relevant, something more relatable.

And yet, there are select few photographs that shock, surprise and move us beyond the first glance. Think of the devastating shot of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. This year at the WPP,  5,034 photographers from 126 countries submitted 80,408 images to the contest. 45 photographers from 25 countries received awards. Photos that address and highlight topics that strongly resonated with festival’s jury. So what makes these images so powerful?


Behind the 2017 World Press Photo of the Year

Burhan Ozbilici
Burhan Ozbilici explaining one of his photos in the series An Assassination in Turkey (Maclean, 2017)

This year’s World Press Photo of the Year winner is Burhan Ozbilici (Turkey, The Associated Press) for the stark and chilling photo An Assassination in Turkey.

Another of his photos in the same collection also won first prize in the Spot News Stories category. His series shows how Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, at an art exhibition in Ankara, Turkey, on December 19 2016.  Officers later killed Altıntaş in a shootout.

Describing the moment the exhibition took a sinister turn, Ozbilici writes,  “The event seemed routine […]. So when a man in a dark suit and tie pulled out a gun, I was stunned and thought it was a theatrical flourish. […] I was afraid and confused, but found partial cover behind a wall and did my job: taking photographs.”

The photo is a controversial winner showing both the killer and victim in the same frame. His photo series is chilling, showing Karlov’s last moments before his death. Some have argued the award gives a premeditated murderer his moment in the spotlight. Jury chairman Stuart Franklin didn’t vote for the photo to win overall best photo. He writes in the Guardian, “it’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading.”

However, he was outvoted by the remainder of the Jury panel. On the winning photo, Jury member João Silva said,

[…] I see the world marching towards the edge of an abyss. This is a man who has clearly reached a breaking point and his statement is to assassinate someone who he really blames, a country that he blames, for what is going on elsewhere in the region. I feel that what is happening in Europe, what is happening in America, what is happening in the Far East, Middle East, Syria, and this image to me talks of it. It is the face of hatred.


Triggering a Response

The strength of a photo then doesn’t just depend on its photographers technical “skill” or “ability”, but also the feelings and attitudes it can trigger from its audience. When a viewer no longer sees the subject/s as other but identifies both themselves and the subject/s as one, it can create a powerful reaction. Ozbilici’s image captures bubbling political and global tensions. These tensions exerted by one human, who happens to be Turkish onto another who happens to be Russian. Whilst those living in war-torn countries suffer regularly at the hands of those who don’t regard life as intrinsic, a viewer of this photo who takes their safety for granted is shocked to see how quickly and how with little regard life is taken away. It might be argued then, that images like this are paramount to trigger a change in current global opinion.

Watch the following video below for further Jury perspectives on Ozbilici’s photo.

World Press Photo of the Year – Jury perspectives from World Press Photo on Vimeo.


A powerful image, however, does not always need to be one that rouses up sadness, anger or despair. Many of the WPP winners this year promote equality, tolerance and will bring a smile to your face. Check out Giovanni Capriotti’s series on Muddy York Rugby Football Club, the first gay-friendly rugby team in Toronto.

The exhibition continues in Amsterdam for another month and is currently showing in several other European cities. Find out further information here.

– Sarah Maclean

Feature image: World Press Photo Foundation

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