These days it can be difficult to determine what constitutes truly good photography as we scroll through untiring social media feeds, where powerful photojournalism can be found adjacent to filtered snapshots of Caesar salad.To the untrained eye, both displays look professional—after all, the megapixel count on iPhone cameras today approaches that of a DSLR. It was with a large dose of naiveté that the true artistic and communicative power of photojournalism was lost on me.
However, when I strolled into the inviting hall of Bonsecours Market in Old Montreal, the stage for this year’s World Press Photo exhibition transformed my perspective. Dubbed “The Oscars of photojournalism” in its press release, World Press Photo aims to bridge the gap between true photojournalism professionals and the general public by displaying 150 of the year’s best press photos.
This travelling exhibition showcases the cream of the crop in every category of press photography: From daily life stories and sports to global news and nature shots. Ninety-eight thousand photos were submitted, but only 53 photographers received placements, making it the most prestigious press photography contest in the world. The exhibition is making a month-long stop in Montreal, but will travel to more than 100 cities in over 45 countries this year.
Every photo is provocative—highlighting individuals from countless diverse corners of the world. The captured moments are fleeting, but a single one holds a lifetime of stories and experiences, displaying political unrest, economic strife, or religious zeal. The photos bring new life to even the most familiar conflicts: Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa, second-prize winner for the Daily Life Stories category, highlighted happenings in the Middle East in her series entitled “Occupied Pleasures.” Instead of highlighting soldiers, refugees, or violence, the series shows three high school girls on the West Bank trying on dresses for a school dance. Another photo shows a group of bodybuilders posing and laughing after a workout in Gaza City. Although not without bias or political clout, these images shed a different kind of light and give a liveliness to otherwise disconnected or faraway places.
The gallery hall is set up to encourage free-form dispersal throughout the exhibit; there is no specific order or flow in which to view the photos. This design certainly speaks to the idea of the universality of human experience—a theme that seems to ring throughout the entire show. Although the photos display individuals in vastly different contexts—turmoil or joy, war or peace, sickness or health—there is a homogeneity, an interconnectivity between them all. Even the audience becomes a part of the exhibition: As we draw in closer to the photo stands, each lit by a soft spotlight, our own shadows glide onto the glossy surface of the image. The nanoseconds of our lives are suddenly no more or less important than the ones displayed before us.
Winner of the World Press Photo-of-the-Year, National Geographic Photographer John Stanmeyer, expresses a similar sentiment as he describes his prizewinning photo, “Signal”.
“While standing on the shores of the Red Sea that evening in Djibouti City, it felt as if I was photographing all of us—you, me, our brothers and sisters—all desperately trying to connect to our loved ones,” he stated. “This photograph of Somalis trying to ‘catch’ a signal is an image of all of us as we stand at the crossroads of humanity, where we must ask ourselves what is truly important, demanding our collective attention in a global society where the issues of migration, borders, war, poverty, technology and communication intersect.”
Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything that powerful on Instagram.
World Press Photo exhibition runs from Aug. 27 to Sept. 28 at Bonsecours Market (325 De la Commune Street Est) in Old Montreal. Student tickets are $10 and the exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and until midnight on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.