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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Those who know how to tell stories will always have work to do”

The World Press Photo grand prix winner on photography’s inexhaustible potential, copyright, and Ukraine
25 February, 2014 - 10:53
Photo from the website WORLDPRESSPHOTO.ORG

US photographer John Stanmeyer has won a third award in World Press Photo, the world’s most prestigious photo contest. For, while he took first and third places in 2000 in the Spot News category for spotlighting Asian protests, he grabbed the grand prix this time.

The winning photo is titled Signal. It pictures some poor African migrants who have come to the Djibouti seashore to catch cheep phone signals from the neighboring Somalia.

John Stanmeyer confesses on his Facebook page: “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. In this tenuous period of human migration where despair and hope simultaneously intertwine, we seek to find comfort, a sense of balance, a desire to be home… This photograph of Somalis trying to ‘catch’ a signal is an image of all of us as we stand at the crossroads of humanity…”

Stanmeyer contributed to the US Time magazine in 1998 to 2008. At the same time, was and still is publishing his photos in National Geographic. He is also one of the seven photographers who founded the photo agency VII (“Seven”) which now employs 30 photo reporters who specialize in conflict coverage.

The Day decided to congratulate Mr. Stanmeyer on his World Press Photo 2014 triumph and, seizing this opportunity, asked him a few questions.

“About 100 percent of my work deals with social problems, such as growing poverty, neglected illnesses, and security, climate, water, and cultural degradation issues,” Stanmeyer noted. “These are the main topics for me as photo correspondent. When I was taking the winning photo, I contributed to National Geographic on migration in Africa which began 50-60 thousand years ago. Being humans, we seem to be migrating somewhere even today. You can get employed in Ukraine and then find a job outside it – and this will mean that you are migrating to find an opportunity to work. But this opportunity may be useful for some, while it may be a desperate search of prospects for others.”

Copyright safety is a pressing issue today. How do you think photographers can combat piracy and the theft of their photographs?

“I don’t even know how to address this situation, but we can protect our rights by explaining online the importance of this. A critical moment for photographers here is putting watermarks on their pictures in order to identify them. This will also mean that you hold a copyright to this photo. Others will find it difficult or problematic to use these photos.”

Can you say that the picture influences the reader as much as the text does?

“It is difficult to answer this in no uncertain terms, for everything depends on the reader’s choice – whether they like reading or just watching pictures. I think the text and illustrations form a very important balance for communication itself. Somebody may have no time for reading, so he may see the photos, read the captions, and get back to the text itself later. We are all cooperating to create a greater potential for communication.”

What is your vision of photo journalism in the future?

“I can see an inexhaustible potential for photography, journalism, and communication as a whole in the future. Social networking sites have already become a new form of publication. We can also see a tremendous potential all over the world, when various people can document what is going on around and share very important information with others. There can be a photographer anywhere. This is a very unique time of communication which I think photographers themselves are also creating. This is ushering in if not a new era then, in any case, an era that has a very wide potential for communication. However, civil journalism will not kill the profession of photo journalist in the future. Many can take an interesting or beautiful snapshot with their cell phone or photo camera, but those who know how to tell stories will always have work to do. Not all are good at telling stories. Some people may know how to write short messages or make small posts on Facebook or a blog, but are there many people who can do what, for instance, your newspaper is doing?”

Your biography says that you spotlighted social transformations in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism…

“A few years ago fate took me to Romania, Hungary, and former Yugoslavia. This is the link I have with that part of Europe.”

Are you keeping track with the current events in Ukraine?

“Yes, I am watching very closely the situation in your country. What is going on is a very serious thing. A few years ago I had an opportunity to visit Ukraine, when I was preparing a material for National Geographic about Uman and the blessed water. The material dealt with its spiritual properties, and this special issue of the journal was about water. When I was in Ukraine, I partook of wonderful borsch. All the people were very friendly to us. I remembered Ukraine as a marvelous country, and I would like to come back to it and spend more time there.”


World Press Photo is a globally acclaimed international contest of social documentary photography held since 1955. This year saw the 57th competition in which 5,754 photographers and about 98,000 works took part.

By Ihor SAMOKYSH, The Day