World Press Photo: Smile, it is an order


At the site of a Second World War concentration camp, a tourist wears a T-shirt that says, Smile, it is an order!.

A scene of such juxtaposition provokes a repelling reaction. Its observer, gifted with creative skills, crafts his quasi-instantaneous reflection into an award-winning series of captivating pictures.

History of a picture

Dutch photographer Roger Cremers is driven to capture emotions. He translated his impressions of the surrealist scenes at Auchwitz-Birkenau into Preserving Memory: Visitors at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, a series of images for which he was awarded the 2009 World Press Photo first prize in the category for Arts and Entertainments Stories.

Cremers and I discussed one of his many journeys to Poland in 2002 so I could begin to understand the origin of his award-winning pictures. From the moment he saw that tourist in the Smile…! T-shirt, the vision was embedded in his memory.

When he returned to Auschwitz in 2007, he was astonished to find people acting as if “they were in a museum.” That was the moment when “everything came together” for him, he expressed to me.

In the artistic world, a good masterpiece may be conceived long before it becomes reality. It is fascinating how humans can traverse back in time to embrace again a feeling they’ve left in the past. An example of this capacity that comes to my mind is the Spanish cinema director Pedro Almodovar´s last film: Los Abrazos Rotos (in English, Broken Embraces). Although filmed only recently, it started to take shape in his mind as he was contemplating a picture of a beach in Lanzarote, taken from his window some years ago.

Cremers, a Dutchman, decided in 2008 to revisit the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to immortalise with his camera lens what he perceived to be inappropriate in a place that lives as a testimony to the atrocities once committed there. 

Although Auschwitz is in the background, Preserving Memory’s subject is not the camp but the visitors’ behaviour. It is a commentary about people who wonder around the old and rusty facilities with a lack of respect and consideration.

After spending a whole week there, Rogers described to me his feeling of “shame for people’s attitude,” particularly those who acted as if they were just “having the day off” in a tourist attraction.

What could have been a roll of emotional and dramatic scenes turned out to be a series of pictures taken in an ironic fashion.

“It is like this magic surrealism of reality and the kind of different world we have created,” said Micaela Pereira, manager of ExhibitionsimagePlanning and Logistics at World Press Photo, before the opening of the 2009 World Press Photo exhibition held at the Centre Ceramique in Maastricht between 6 and 29 November.

A walk through the snapshots

Images depicting the ravages of war, like shots of Palestinian protesters taking cover behind an olive tree from tear gas fired by Israeli troops, and photographs of natural catastrophes, like the devastating earthquake that killed 70,000 people in central China, are extensively represented in this year’s World Press Photo exhibition.

In addition to shocking and frightening scenes, though,  there are also light-hearted scenes that enlighten, delight, amaze and exhilarate. Solitary snow leopards frolic in the Indian Himalayan; senator Barack Obama does chin-ups before giving a speech during his electoral campaign. Material wealth of Moldovan and Romanian families is demonstrated in one wing of the exhibit while the comical expressions of athletes in the diving competition of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games amuse around the corner.

This combination of displayed realities is part of a travelling exhibition that visits around 100 cities around the world to be seen by over 2 million visitors. The main objective of the exhibit is to stimulate press photography while supporting press freedom. The World Press Photo competition manages to achieve this while dazzling both the general and the photo-journalistic audience. The secret is that all photos can evoke an emotion whether or not the viewer belongs to the field of photography.

Prize-winning photographs are the result of a complex selection process that kicks off with judges looking at, in the case of the last edition, 96,268 submitted photographs. The 2009 edition has nearly had a 20 percent increase over last year, representing the work of 5,508 photographers from 124 countries.

Photographers becoming editors

It is essential for photographers to have done editing work before sending their pictures to the contest. Since the jury members have only one second to look at every single photo, a winning image must make an instant deep and powerful impact on the jury members. For that reason, photographers “must make sure their first image is really strong,” Pereira said.

Traditionally, shooting and the editing were two separate processes. These have now become one thanks, to advanced technology development. Today, chairman of 2010 Word Press Photo contest, Ayperi Karabuda Ecer asserts “a new generation should totally embrace editing as an integrated element of the photographic process,” because it can “turn unnoticed pictures into key elements.”

It is for this reason that professional photographers are also bound to be the editors of their work.

Photojournalism in good form?

Quality, strength and power of the exhibited images contrast with the fragile state in which photojournalism lives at this very moment.

On one hand, there have never been more photographs on display around the world, thanks partly to the wide access on-line. On the other hand, the profession is losing its printed outlets and according to Ecer, is “struggling in between economic models where there is a big lack of assignments” from big publications like the National Geographic or Time Magazine.

As a consequence of that, stories seem to be getting shorter. As Pereira said, now is a time when “it is easier to make a snapshot than send someone to make a long story.”

The economic crisis facing the whole world did not go unnoticed by the 2009 World Press Photo jury.

“It’s link to reality, or, better said, realities, is crucial,” Ecer said. Therefore the black-and-white image awarded as World Press Photo of the Year 2008, by US photographer Anthony Suau, depicts an armed officer entering a home in Cleveland, Ohio, to enforce an eviction order following mortgage foreclosure. I, for one, was confused when I saw in this photograph war and conflict in their classic sense. I did not see right away the aftermath of a housing problem.

Despite the financial crisis and proliferation of current technology, being able to “create” nearly any real situation without the work of the photographer, this author believes photojournalism will prevail. It will do so because the human touch and the journalistic content cannot be replaced by any cutting-edge computer software or an amateur´s stroke of luck.
To this respect, Cremers said “everybody can take pictures, but a good photojournalist has something to say. He thinks about his work and he has a message.” Consequently it should be emphasised that reality does not unfold itself, but it needs the help of these professionals.

The medium is not the message

At the conclusion of her visit to this exhibition, this author is not sure whether a picture is really worth a thousand words. But she leaves the venue with the feeling of having read dozens of last year’s newspapers and having watched a 10-hour news programme. She concludes by asking herself: Does an article complement a photographer’s image or is it is the picture itself that accompanies the information?

I would rather leave it in the words of Roger Cremers: “You are a journalist with a pen and I am a journalist with a camera.”

All photos courtesy of World Press Photography