Behind the lens: An exclusive interview with the curator of the World Press Photo Exhibition in Bucharest

Oana Vasiliu 05/06/2024 | 07:02

The 67th edition of the World Press Photo exhibition is currently taking place in Piața Universității, Bucharest, up until June 7th. Brought to Romania for 13 consecutive years by the Eidos Foundation, the exhibition features 146 photographs, and it highlights stories about the war in Gaza and Ukraine, migration, climate change, family, and mental health, underscoring the significance of photojournalism worldwide.

In an exclusive interview for Business Review, the curator Martha Echevarria shares insights into the selection process, the challenges and responsibilities of her role, and the impact of her academic background in cultural sociology on her work. The exhibition includes a free audio tour, developed in partnership with the Smartify app, which enriches the visitor experience by narrating the stories behind the award-winning photographs.

Key highlights of the exhibition include the Photo of the Year, awarded to Mohammed Salem for his poignant image “A Palestinian Woman Embraces the Body of Her Niece,” and the Story of the Year, awarded to Lee-Ann Olwage for “Valim-babena,” which sheds light on dementia in Madagascar. The exhibition also features innovative projects such as “War is Personal” by Julia Kochetova, blending photojournalism with documentary style, poetry, and music.

You have a background in cultural sociology. How do your academic studies influence your current role as a curator for the World Press Photo exhibition?

My studies and background have led me to question the role and impact of images in how people perceive the world today. While studying, I realized that our visual culture – the content we consume through mainstream media and news channels – constantly shapes our understanding of the world, other people, and places. Since photojournalism is often perceived as (one of) the most accurate representation of reality, it has a stronger impact on people’s perceptions and understandings. Therefore, it’s always been very important for me to treat these photographs and content with utmost care, acknowledging the responsibility that each story carries from its creation to its delivery to the audience.

With 146 photographs on display, covering topics such as the war in Gaza and Ukraine, migration, family, and mental health, how were the photographs selected for this year’s exhibition?

In each region, a selection of entries per category was first made by a regional jury, composed of professionals from and/or working in that region, with a range of expertise. With the knowledge each jury member possesses, they were well-equipped to judge the stories and put them into cultural, political, and social contexts. Once the regional juries made their selection, the global jury – composed of the six regional jury chairs and the global jury chair – decided on the 24 regional winners, and from those, the four global winners.

With 61,062 entries from 3,851 photographers across 130 countries, what do you think this says about the current state of photojournalism worldwide?

We are very glad to receive such a high number of entries in our contest. This participation shows that photojournalism is still an essential tool in documenting and sharing the diverse stories of our world today.

Thanks to our regional model, we have seen an increase in entries from underrepresented regions, highlighting the growing global engagement with photojournalism. But despite this progress, most submissions still come primarily from Europe, North and Central America, and Asia. Several countries in these regions have a longer history of photojournalism and a more established infrastructure and resources to support the development of the medium.

However, we remain optimistic about the future of photojournalism at a global scale. We continue to see more interest from local photographers in participating from regions with historically less participation such as Africa, South America and Southeast Asia and Oceania. This trend is increasing the diversity of both stories and storytellers in this global industry.

The exhibition highlights the importance of photojournalism around the world. In your opinion, what role does photojournalism play in shaping public perception and awareness of global issues?

The content we consume through mainstream media and news channels shapes our understanding of the world, other people, and places. Since photojournalism is often perceived as the most accurate representation of reality, it has a stronger impact on how viewers think of real-life situations, global issues, and events.

This means that people who work in photojournalism have a huge responsibility:  to make accurate and thorough reporting that also engages with the photographed subjects respectfully and ethically. The way photojournalists choose to report, the content they highlight or omit, the photographs they take or erase, will impact how we think about a specific subject.

Given the sensitive nature of some of the topics covered, such as war and mental health, how do you ensure that the exhibition is both impactful and respectful?

The first step is to ensure that we have an independent jury made up of several regional experts who can speak of how and what is important to represent and photograph in their region. Once the jury has selected the winning projects, we use our visual expertise along with the jury’s commentary on the selection to create a visually appealing exhibition that is also full of interactive and educational content, such as an audio tour and complementary videos and websites. All these elements presented together in an exhibition show that each work has been treated with the utmost care and respect for the journalists and the subjects behind the images.

How do you see the role of exhibitions like the World Press Photo in educating and engaging the public, especially in today’s digital age where images are so readily accessible?

We want to ensure that the images and stories we share through our exhibition and social media have been thoroughly researched and show fair depictions of the world. Every year, we collaborate with a forensics team and a research team to guarantee that the images we award are not manipulated and that the captions and texts that we present provide up-to-date facts and information.

In an era where AI-generated images and misinformation are on the rise, our commitment to sharing educational resources and presenting trustworthy, high-quality photojournalism is more important than ever. By curating and showcasing impactful visual stories, we foster a deeper understanding of global issues and inspire critical thinking among our audience. Our exhibitions can help educate the public and guide them in navigating the overwhelming influx of digital imagery with more discernment.

The Photo of the Year award went to Mohammed Salem for “A Palestinian Woman Embraces the Body of Her Niece.” Can you tell us more about the impact of this image and why it was chosen as the winner?

This year’s Photo of the Year shows Ines Abu Maamar holding the body of her 5-year-old niece, Sally, who was killed in an Israeli attack. This powerful image evokes a strong emotional response, leaving a lasting impression on those who see it. Although the photograph lacks extensive visual context, the shapes of the bodies showing both love and grief convey a deep understanding of the scene. It serves as both a literal and metaphorical representation of the horrors of war.

The Story of the Year award was won by Lee-Ann Olwage for “Valim-babena.” How do you think this story from Madagascar about dementia resonates with the global audience?

Mental health, dementia, and care for elderly people are important themes worldwide. With global life expectancy on the rise, more people are experiencing symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and many others are now caring for relatives with these symptoms.

In her documentation of a day in the life of Fara and Dada Paul in Madagascar, Lee Ann Olwage captures the complexities of healthcare and mental illness with remarkable closeness, care, and respect for the subjects photographed. This visual intimacy, combined with the relevance of the subject, makes the project resonate strongly with viewers.

The Long-Term Project award went to Alejandro Cegarra for “The Two Walls,” and the Open Format award was given to Julia Kochetova for “War is Personal.” How do these projects contribute to the understanding of complex global issues?

“The Two Walls” by Alejandro Cegarra documents the difficulties of migrating from South America through Mexico to reach the United States. The long-term project successfully captures migrants as individuals with unique personal stories, struggles, and dreams, offering a perspective that challenges the often dehumanizing narratives seen in traditional news channels. Mainstream media tends to speak about migration in numbers and masses which can strip away the humanity and individuality of those who migrate. “The Two Walls” reminds us that migrants, like anyone else, experience fear, hope, dreams, and aspirations. The touching portrait of two young travelers looking at each other shows that amidst their difficult journey, they also find love.

The project “War is Personal” combines photojournalism with documentary style, poetry, and music. How do you see the role of innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration in contemporary photojournalism?

The Open Format category looks to broaden our understanding of storytelling within the photojournalism industry. In the case of “War is Personal,” the photographer combined a series of styles and mediums to convey the personal experience of working and living in a war zone. Traditional photojournalism has its limitations and cannot always convey the complex ways in which people experience, feel, and think about a situation.

How has the response been from the Bucharest community and visitors over the past 13 years since the exhibition is taking place also locally, and what impact do you think the exhibition has had on local perspectives?

Romania has become one of the important countries for World Press Photo. We have been bringing the exhibition to Bucharest for 13 years, and in recent years even to other cities in the country, and the reaction has always been positive. Since we have been displaying it in the square, with free and easy access for everyone, the response from the people has been extraordinary. Journalism, arts, and political science students visit it, teachers use it as teaching material, and that is incredible. The fact that there is so much interest around it makes us not want to give up and to bring it to Romania year after year.

Certainly, the photographs in the exhibition have a real impact on those who visit it. Besides making us aware of problems from all over the world, it can also function as a lens that places the viewer in the shoes of citizens living their lives under various political regimes, armed conflicts, or natural disasters. Going through the exhibition can be a very good preview of how we want our future to look.

 For those who might be experiencing the World Press Photo exhibition for the first time, what advice would you give to fully appreciate and understand the stories behind the images?

My main advice is to take your time in getting to know the stories and the storytellers. If there is anything that struck you, do research and get familiar with the subject, learn more, and then share that knowledge with others.

Stay curious and engaged, committed to finding reliable news, and hopefully, you can leave the exhibition with a sense of connection to the world around you.


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Oana Vasiliu | 06/06/2024 | 16:28
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