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News & Insight

WPP Photo Of The Year Scandal: The ‘Jury’ May Be Worse Than The ‘Criminal’

By Kishore Sawh on February 20th 2014

SignalThere’s been some brouhaha over this year’s WPP Photo Of The Year decision. Actually there’s been a lot of it around the awards in general. Last year, there was controversy surrounding the winning image, which caused stricter rules regarding post processing. This year, at the hands of many of the Internet’s nitpickers, there is much furious discussion on either side of the fence that 8% of the finalists’ images were disqualified due to some sort of image processing (The awards only pertain to unaltered photos). That could be a whole other discussion, but the one that really seems to have those of an accusatory persuasion running around as though they’re on fire, is to do with everyone’s favorite way to get a job – nepotism.

The prestigious award was bestowed to John Stanmeyer, for whom the award sits in line with an accomplished career. Stanmeyer has photographed numerous covers for the likes of Time, National Geographic, and Newsweek, to name a few. According to The World Press Photo foundation, this win was for his image ‘Signal,’ (pictured above), which

…shows African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia — a tenuous link to relatives abroad.

It really is a beacon of an image, where the story exposes and encapsulates much about our current world; wealth disparity, dependency on technology, and globalization. Now though, it’s a beacon for controversy. Stanmeyer is faced with accusations that his win was due, at least in part, to the fact he has a very close friendship and working relationship, with one of the judges, Gary Knight. Stanmeyer and Knight are both founding members of the respected photo organization VII, a company surely to benefit from the award. Conflict of interest ensues.

Interesting to note is that Knight, clearly saw this coming. How do we know? He has stated that he attempted to recuse himself by requesting he be removed from the final judging, due to this relationship with Stanmeyer. He went on to say his request was denied, as the World Press rules would not allow it. So, there was some transparency, but that begs the questions…how is it the World Press being run? Was it just negligence or an acceptance of nepotism in this world? Or did they think no one would notice or care?


These are themes that keep recurring in WPP year in and year out, and in turn, keep occurring in criticism of them. This negative attention challenged the credibility of the foundation and as such WPP has released an official statement regarding the matter, soaked in indemnity.


I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, though I suspect I would have staunch opinions should I have anything at stake. It seems to me that to think nepotism isn’t at play in everything we do is a bit juvenile. In a community of any sort, favoritism plays a role, and the closer to the top, the communities shrink, and everyone knows everyone.

Also, this isn’t a criminal trial, though the commenters act like a jury who’ve turned on the judge. This is an award, and an award is like seeking a promotion. Everyone’s going to be gunning for it, and you do what you can to secure it. So blaming the judges for having a favorite is a bit naive, lobbying under the illusion of ‘fairness.’ It’s office politics, and what they’re doing is water cooler talk at best. What all this negative banter does point out is that in this case and in many of these types of ‘cases,’ the ‘jurors’ can be worse than the ‘criminals.’

[REWIND: How Haters are Destroying the Photography Industry]


Have a look at some on-going discussion on the topic here, and you can find out more about John Stanmeyer here.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Eric

    I sat in on the Pictures Of The Year contest as support staff for three years at the University of Missouri J-School back in the 80s. I saw plenty
    Of examples of judges (National Geographic, New York Times, etc.) take themselves out of the judging when there was such a conflict.

    Too bad World Press could be so unreasonable on such a thing. I’m sure many judges would be fair. I’d like to hope I could be. There’s no excuse for forcing someone into an ethical conflict like this. Especially when they seem to want to be sticklers about post-processing. It smacks of hypocrisy.

    As a journalist and editor I fully support such restrictions when dealing with news photos. (Please spare me the “new journalism” nonsense. It’s neither new nor journalism.)

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