Managing director of World Press Photo on the difficulties of photojournalism


The renowned French photo agency Gamma Press is in danger of closing down. In late July, Eyedea Press, the publishing group that owns the agency, said it could no longer pay its bills.
Founded in 1966 by photographers Raymond Depardon and Gilles Carron, Gamma “embodied in the 1970s the excellence of photojournalism the French way,” according to newspaper Le Monde.

Many imageprominent personalities in France have signed a petition calling for Gamma’s rescue. But Eyedea Presse CEO Stéphane Ledoux says that the business of photojournalism is no longer viable.

Michiel Munneke is the managing director of World Press Photo, a foundation that organises exhibitions and a prestigious annual press photography contest. He says that photojournalists today face greater competition and reduced outlets in the traditional media. But according to him, changes in technology and news consumption also offer opportunities.

Corentin Wauters: Gamma is one of the most famous photojournalism agencies. Some even call it legendary. How important has it been for photojournalism?

Michiel Munneke: I think Gamma – but also others like Magnum, for instance – played an extremely important role from early years on, especially in documenting crucial news events around the world. It’s important to realise that in those days you had magazines like Life and the Picture Post who very generously allocated tens of pages to events like the war in Vietnam, for example. Those publications and photographs made a huge impact on their readerships.

I think it’s fair to say that the founders of Gamma, like Raymond Depardon – although he moved to Magnum at the end of the ‘70s – and Gilles Corron, who died in 1970 in Cambodia, can be classified as legendary. They played a very important role in news documenting in those years.

Raymond Depardon said that in 1966 you only had to travel far away and take three shots to get published in magazines Paris Match or Le Nouvel Observateur. How has the profession of photojournalism changed since Gamma was founded?

If Depardon was saying that competition for space in publications like Paris Match or Le Nouvel Observateur is stronger, then he’s absolutely right. Competition is far more severe. Circulations are going down, advertising revenues are shrinking, and consequently budgets for journalism and for photography are being cut.
Nowadays its very rare that publications send photographers for assignments overseas. Take a renowned magazine like Time. They still have photographers on staff but they very rarely get assignments to go overseas. It’s a sign of the times.

Gamma, but also other big photojournalism agencies like Sipa, were founded in Paris. The city had a big name as a centre for photojournalism. To what extent is that true today?

I think for those years it was really true. But now, in the era of globalisation and digitisation, it doesn’t serve a purpose to say, ‘this is a centre of photojournalism’. I think it’s everywhere, and that of course is a big change.

Photojournalism is not a world on its own. It’s part of a bigger world and it has to adapt to globalisation and technical developments. In a sense they both bring great opportunities as well as threats. As I said, competition is more severe. At the same time there are talented photographers in parts of the world where Western photographers used to be sent.

Has World Press Photo witnessed this internationalisation through submissions to the competition?

Yes. If you look at the era from 1993 to 2009, you can see an increase in the number of participants from nearly 2000 to over 5000. The interesting thing is that there is also an increase on all continents. Within that same timeframe, we received submissions from 84 nationalities in 1993 and 124 last year.

What other changes are there for photojournalism?

There are so many things going on. Sometimes you hear question like, ‘For a photograph, do we need a photographer anymore?’ There are so many images out there and, with the current technology, situations are being made up behind a computer. You can’t really tell whether an image from a war zone in Iraq was put together behind a computer screen in the US, the Netherlands or wherever.
What it comes down to is credibility. For me credibility and integrity lie at the core of our profession. So we need the photographer and the photograph as a credible recording device. That is extremely important nowadays.

What is the role of photography in journalism? How does it complement writing?

Nowadays photography is being used as a way of illustrating text. It’s quite common in a lot of mainstream newspapers and magazines. But I think that photography in itself has a very strong power to tell a story. As long as it’s done in a truthful way, it can tell a very compelling story on its own.

What I find interesting is that, due to the limitations in the tradition printed media, many publications, like the New York Times for example, will publish one single photograph in the newspaper and then refer to their website to see the full story. For me, that’s perfectly in line with the evolving way in which people consume news and information. It’s about combining all these different media types and sources. For that reason you can even be very positive.

What are World Press Photo’s criteria for awarding a photo?

It’s hard to say what it is in general but I would say there are two sets of values. The first refers to the visual arts, to the aesthetics of the photograph. The other one of course is the journalistic value, which focuses more on the content of the image. It comes down to whether a picture has a clear structure, the composition is strong, the cropping and the use of colours is adequate; Does it have some stopping power, so to say? Are you being seduced to think about beauty or other visual qualities? Then on the journalistic side what it comes down to is whether the message is clear, relevant; whether it comes across or not.

Those two basic criteria are being applied by the different jury members. Then there are some other things that come into play, which is linked to where people come from. It depends on your cultural and professional background. Since we invite jury members from all over the world, there are many different types of ingredients that come into play when making the final choices.

Michiel Munneke photo by Stephan Vanfleteren