Prestigious World Press Photo 2008 opens in Prague

Photo: CTK

The prestigious World Press Photo 2008 has opened at its traditional venue, Charles University’s Carolinum in the Prague city centre, with winning photos highlighting major events from last year – from the election of US President Barack Obama to scenes of conflict such as the war between Russia and Georgia. This year the jury choose some 60 winners from 96,000 entries.

Femke van der Falke is a representative of the World Press Photo Foundation. She told me more about World Press Photo’s history in Prague:

“The exhibition has come to the Czech Republic for the last 19 years – the last nine years it was always held in the city’s Carolinum, a very suitable site. We always have a local partner who looks for a suitable venue: what’s key is that the place be easily accessible and well-known. And of course it needs to be big wenough. This is in the heart of the city. What’s more, it’s right next to the university, so it also gets a lot of student visits. A perfect place for the exhibit.”

Photo: CTK
This year saw a record number of entries and Femke van der Falke admits choosing winning entries by the jury is a monumental task.

“With the number increasing it’s getting even harder and we’ve adjusted the programme a bit, with the jury getting one extra day. The jury is divided according to first round and second round but the first round jury sees EVERYTHING. If something seems interesting, a member can back it and push it forward. Basically, around 20 percent of photos make it the second round, but that’s still something like 20,000 images!”

JV: Basically it has to be something really striking to make it through…

“Yes, exactly. First it has to be visually tempting. Of course the members on the jury are experts: it’s their job to look at images every day, so they can tell within seconds if something is promising, if it’s worth keeping in.”

Themes at the fore of the World Press Photo, which is travelling around the globe in fifteen copies, include the world record set by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt at the Olympics, but also scenes of strife: attacks by Brazilian police on squatters or the 2008 earthquake in China. But the overall winning enrtry was a photo by American photographer Anthony Suau, taken for Time magazine. The black & white image captures a police officer, with firearm raised, exploring an abandoned home: a room filled with debris. The first impulse is to assume that the photo is a war image, or a shot from the slums, but in fact, it is a photo of a US home that was repossessed from its owners when they were unable to pay their mortgage. Stimulating ‘contradictions’ and different layers of meaning clearly contributed to its win. Femke van der Falke explains:

“One of the interesting things about this image is that, first of all, it’s not what you’d first expect: you look at the scene of the officer and you think automatically that it’s a drug scene or something like that. But it’s not. What it is, is a home in Cleveland, Ohio. You have to read the caption, which explains that the owners had to leave because they couldn’t pay their mortgage. It shows how the situation has deteriorated: the officer has to enter with his gun raised because many houses are empty, have been looted and so on. It really brings the financial crisis to a level we can all connect to. It’s a situation many people are suffering, with big firms closing and so on. It says much more than just an image of a banker in despair on Wall Street and is very much a defining image for 2008.”

Also awarded on Thursday at the opening was the acclaimed Swiss photographer Jean Revillard, last year’s 1st prize in Contemporary Issues: Stories at World Press Photo 2008. The photographer, who has continued working on a series mapping economic migrants attempting to cross into the European Union, this year received the Prague Prize presented by the city’s mayor. Here’s what Jean Revillard had to say at Thursday’s press conference about the series of photos taken in Patras, Greece:

“I have been doing this work for six years now and I am interested in places in Europe which are hot spots for migration. This place is covered by many photographers, some of whom are militant or amateurs. My aim is to look at it in a different way, another visual way to rekindle interest in the situation.”

The photographer adds that he interviews all his subjects closely, to learn more about their ambitions and interests:

“These migrants into Europe are very young, between the ages of 15 and 25 and they are ‘pushed’ to travel by the internet, Facebook, MSN, and by the opportunity to find work in Europe because there is a market for them. I photograph the courage and determination and hope of these people. Not misery, because they want to have the same values as us.”

Afterwards, Jean Revillard told me still more about the migrants he has mapped.

“The iconography of the refugees is constantly the same, suggesting they are crazy, unintelligent and completely crazy to come to Europe because some believe they will find nothing here. It’s not true. They have definite plans and are financed by their families at home, they know what they are doing. I am trying to change how such migrants are perceived.”

Meanwhile many – like Femke van der Falke – are enthusiastic about the Prague Przie as part of the exhibition.

“It’s a local initiative that is not done in other places but I think it is a very good one, an opportunity to tell even more stories. That the city is giving its own award is something we are very happy with. It’s great and another opportunity for the photographer to show more of his work than just what was selected in the contest.

World Press Photo 2008 will continue at Prague’s Carolinum until October 11.