Nii Obodai, Africa jury chair for the 2024 World Press Photo Contest recognizing the world’s best photojournalism, seeks photography that “shift[s] from hard visualization of violence to a more nuanced approach that empowers viewers towards reaching greater understanding… [Not …] dead bodies, or women and children in vulnerable, violent situations [but] nuanced visual narratives.”

Questions about excellence in war photojournalism arise from the outcomes of the most recent Pictures of the Year (POY) International competition, run by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Institute invited entries under numerous categories, among them, “Impact 2023: Israel-Hamas War (single images)” and “Impact 2023: Israel-Hamas War Picture Story”. The selection of one winning entry outraged some, for reasons beyond the technical elements. The identity of the photographer, the contents of his portfolio and the motivation of the news agency that commissioned his work, have stirred debate online and on social media.

Iconic photos of war across several decades oscillate between the shocking (dead bodies such as the 1944 Pulitzer Prize co-winner showing soldiers killed in the Pacific Battle of Tarawa), the gut-wrenching (1973 Pulitzer Prize depicting children fleeing a napalm bombing in Vietnam), the heart-warming (World Press Photo 2024 Africa singles of an Ethiopian soldier greeting his mother upon his return home), and a slew of sentiments in between.

Exemplary photography can change the course of a conflict — most recently, the image by Lynsey Addario and Andriy Dubchak that provided hard evidence of the death toll on civilians from Russia’s war on Ukraine.

History teaches us that war photography, alongside text and video reporting, have in numerous instances been bent towards propaganda rather than truth, complicity in conflict rather than neutrality. Commenting on news photos of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. theorist Judith Butler writes: “The camera angle, the frame, the posed subjects all suggest that those who took the photographs were actively involved in the perspective of the war, elaborating that perspective and even giving it further validity.”

The purpose of the POY at the time of its inception decades ago was, among other goals, “to pay tribute to those press photographers and newspapers which, despite tremendous war-time difficulties, are doing a splendid job.” Its current tagline is “Show truth with a camera.” The POY competition outcomes beg the question whether participation criteria need tightening or alternatively whether an overhauling of the competition’s stated principles is called for.

In the current volatile times, awards directed to war photojournalism need to raise the bar on which images are worthy of accolades, on what counts as excellence in journalism.

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