The Dutch “World Press Photo”, which is considered the most prestigious and most well-known in the field of photography by photographers affiliated or working with media institutions, chose the Lebanese Jumana Al-Zein Al-Khoury as the first Arab woman to run this prestigious institution.
Al-Khoury took over her position in the foundation’s management last February, months before the annual date of the annual award given by the Foundation for Press Pictures of the Year, and it is divided into several categories.
The foundation – which is based in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam – is the oldest in the world in terms of encouraging and highlighting the products of photojournalists working in various press institutions, as the foundation started its activities in 1955.
The annual prizes it offers are also considered the most valuable in terms of photo contests for professionals worldwide, as photographers from all over the world compete to obtain them, and the number of pictures competing this year has reached about 73 thousand pictures.
The Foundation organizes an annual exhibition every year with the winning photos in the competition, which starts in Amsterdam, before touring in several countries, and publishes a paper book with the winning photos and prints 6 languages.
In addition to the annual awards, World Press Photo organizes workshops and lectures, and cooperates with various human rights organizations.
Pictures dealing with issues from Arab countries received constant attention from the Foundation’s competition, especially the images of the Arab Spring revolutions.
Following is the dialogue with the Khoury:
Were you following the activities of “world press photo” and how did you receive the news of your appointment as director of one of the oldest photographic institutions in the world?
Sure, I knew “World Press Photo” before, because I used to work in the foundation that awards the Prince Claus Awards, which is also active in the world, and some of the photographers that we were supporting at the Klaus Foundation are the same photographers who deal with the “World Press Photo” . The diversity of the stories and people that World Press Photo deals with is important to me.
As for how I found out about the new job .. The announcement of it reached my e-mail with the truth.
I was not planning to move from my job, as I was thinking of staying for one year or one and a half years, but the opportunity was great so I decided to try, applied for the job and got it, which is something I am very proud of.
Pictures of the Arab world, especially those documenting the events of the Arab Spring, are hardly absent from the Foundation’s competitions in the last decade. Do you think that they have contributed to arousing curiosity or understanding of what is happening in our region?
Yes, this is for sure .. with one image that can understand someone’s story and the context in which this picture was taken. This year for the Arab world we had: the Beirut explosion, the Yemeni war, and the “Habibi” series about the Palestinians. And in all of these pictures and stories there are of course the terrible things, but these images do so uniquely and humanely.
The image of Yemen shows a mother and her son trying to fish, so that they can eat, because the woman’s husband died, and there is a big problem with food today.
As for the explosion in Beirut, the picture shows a man with the features of strength, and at the same time you can see the collapse in his face, and this reflects the situation in Lebanon, the current and the condition of many Lebanese.
Last year, for example, there was an image of the Algerian protests, and it was subjective.
I imagine that focusing too much on stories causes the viewer to empathize and understand the stories. It does not return if it was from Yemen, India, or any other place in the world. The viewer feels that this is a human story and it does not matter where it happened.
Some of the burning Arab countries were – and some are still – closed to photographers and professional media and depend on what is known as citizen journalism, is this reflected on the photographs that reach you or that you follow?
This is something that I want to focus strongly on in the future. I started work in February, and within weeks we will begin to reimagine and think about World Press Photo. Our name is “the media picture of the world.” And when we deconstruct the name of the institution, we want to ask questions about what the world means to us, and through which eyes do we want to see it?
The other question is what does the media mean? For example, in the Netherlands, there are clear definitions of the media, but in America it is not as clear as it was before.
In the Arab world, the mainstream media is the official one, which not many people there want. As for the real unofficial media, it is the one that goes on the streets, filmed and puts its photos in the media.
We must understand these changes in the terms of the competition that we put in place, and this is not clear today, in order to enter the competition at the present time you have to be the holder of a press card, or a letter from your chief editor saying that you are a photographer.
In the era of technology that we live in, which has transformed us all into photographers, how do you see the role of traditional institutions that are interested in photography?
I don’t know if I can answer your question, but I will try, I have 3 children, ages 15, 13, 10 years, the way they view the photographs is very different from my way. I recently read that the average time someone spends viewing a picture on the Internet is only 3 quarters of a second. So the way we receive images and the way we make images are very different from the past.
When I was in the discussions of the jury for the last competition, I heard a lot about the balance that must be struck between craftsmanship or skill in creating the image, and the story the latter tells. Of course, the experience or skill with which images are created matters a lot in their ability to influence. On the other hand, we live in an era where every one of us has a camera on our phone and can make great pictures.
In fact, I don’t know what specifically we could do, but we are discussing internally if we have to consider a category in the competition for people who are not media professionals to post their photos, because the story is what matters here.
In your past and current work, are there phenomena worth stopping in the world of photography, or trends that you anticipate in the future?
Since I started my job here 3 months ago, I have spoken to about a hundred people from all over the world. I plan to speak with a similar number in the coming period. In my conversation with these I ask the following two questions: How do you see us as an institution? What are the prospects for photographic journalism and where is it heading?
What remained in my mind from those conversations was what two people told me: The first mentioned that when the era of photo journalism began, the media at that time expected the journalist to be neutral and objective as much as possible, and to show the facts as they are, that is, the photographer is the person who presses the photo-taking button. And this is all his mission.
The other thing, which I touched from the last competition, is the human aspect, and the focus on the story of one person, and this is something that I know personally, because when I get to know my work in “World Press Photo” or in my previous job, I never talk about the vision of the institution that I work With it, I always focus on a human story.
The other important thing, which one of the people I spoke to mentioned to me, is that we have to know which direction photographic journalism is going in the next 5 or 10 years.
In fact, I do not know what should happen, but I know for sure that showing pictures is very important, and who is / is telling the story, and the importance of knowing / knowing the latter about the topic in all its aspects, and as he / she should have a vision in the case Which he portrays, the way he portrays / visualizes, and the respect he / she has to carry for the story he portrays.
How do you choose the jury each year? Do you have specific controls, for example?
The important thing in choosing the committee is that we choose it ourselves, as there is, for example, no specific application to participate in the jury, that is, it is a matter and internal processes in the institution.
The important thing about the jury is that it represents well all the spectrums of the photographic work, for example that it is diverse in terms of geographical distribution, and at the level of equal representation of men and women in it, and of course professional fields.
This year, you have received about 74,000 photographs in terms of photographs. How difficult is the task of sorting?
The task of sorting the pictures is very difficult, which made it more difficult this year by Corona, everything was done via the Internet, and this was a big problem, as the members of the committee were distributed over more than one country, and gathering them at one time was a very difficult task sometimes.
There are categories in the competition, and we have returned to special jury committees that see all the competing photos in each category, and choose some of them to compete in the next stage of the competition, and then the committees that we have chosen to arbitrate between the pictures will start according to their category.
Therefore, no one views 74 thousand pictures, except for the committee that investigates that the pictures are free of all kinds of electronic manipulation.
Regarding the photos that enter the contest, how do you know that they have not been manipulated electronically?
Recently, for the first time, I got acquainted with a new concept called “photo investigation”, which is similar to a criminal investigation, but with photographs … I hope Netflix (platform) will make a program about it. The professional ethics in the photos is very important to us, every photo that enters the contest is investigated to ensure that it has not been tampered with.
Can you tell us about the plans of “World Press Photo” for the coming years?
What is certain about the Foundation in the coming period is that it will have a different strategy. We need to rethink what we are doing, because if we did not do that, we would be less effective and effective after 5 years.