The problem with prizes

January 16, 2012

By Radu Sigheti

As I prepared pictures to submit to a contest I could not stop thinking that all these past years the main photo contests chose their winners from among the pictures depicting wars and conflicts. I think that this year will be the same, due to the many bloody events around the world.

I do not know why those pictures are still chosen, they show horrors. They show the pain of the helpless victims and the joy of the gun-toting bullies. They show, some in a dignified way, some in a gruesome way, humanity at its worst, people killed by other people. They will haunt your memory; they will be published again and again. The photographers took great risks to shoot those images; we praise them for their pictures and courage to be where others do not dare to go. There were amazing photos depicting war and those photographers deserve to be praised for their work. But do their images really belong to a pictures contest? Does anyone think about their impact in the future, about their impact on young photographers? Was Susan Sontag right in her last book, “Regarding the pain of others”?

Throughout those years, many young photographers looked at those pictures and what have they learned? They have learned that to be a great photographer and to make a great picture you must go to a conflict or a war zone, because you get instant recognition. But that’s built on others’ ordeals. Generations of photographers thought this way, even today, in an easily accessible conflict zone, the place is swarming with photographers, sometimes they outnumber the combatants.

What happens in a war zone must be documented, the story must be told, because we are supposed to learn from mistakes, we are supposed to intervene if something happens against humanity. The rest of the world must see what is going on elsewhere.

I have been shooting photographs because of this; in the hope that what I picture today will never happen again. But I see that it happens again and again and again.

At some point after being in Croatia in the 90’s I stopped going to conflict zones, because I felt that it will become part of me. I felt that being horrified at what was going on I might take a gun instead of my camera someday. At another point in my life, I went again to cover conflicts and wars. I do not know why I did it again. I think that at the time I felt that I had learned enough. I could do it without feeling guilty that I was taking pictures of others’ pain, pictures which were published, thus being appreciated as good images, which told the story well. I felt the conflict would not affect me anymore.

But passing through some hot points of our world, I learned that this bloody merry-go-round is unstoppable. And it is still affecting me through all the pictures coming out of the conflicts I see today.

Instead of praising life, you realize how insignificant it is in front of a war, or simply in front of another person who holds a weapon in their hands. You slowly start to despise it. There is nothing you can do to stop this.

I am writing this because I hope that something can be done. We, as photographers, cannot stop a war. We, as photographers, cannot stop taking pictures of events as they happen. But a photo contest could decide what to do with those images of war. They should mention them; show them to the world, but in a different category. Not putting them as the “best”.

This is just a thought which came to me, thinking of the many young, aspiring photographers. Maybe in this way we can turn the attention of the new generations of photographers to capture life and not death in their pictures.


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Starting with the allegations surrounding Capa’s photos, every single image taken in a war is part of a bigger or smaller manipulation. Through its very nature a photo freezes one single little portion of the war, never showing both sides, never showing who’s wrong or right. Young photogs, driven by the desire to be famous, throw themselves in a flak jacket and dodge bullets or skip land mines – some longer, some unfortunately not so much. And then they realize that the only thing they’re achieving is feeding mankind’s appetite for gore and destruction, all the while hiding behind the same poor excuse: “I’m here to tell a story, I’m here to show the world what’s happening to these people.”
The other side of the story, the one they’re very well aware of but would never admit to, is that they’re cogs in the grand scheme of things. The adrenaline rush is so blinding, it makes them forget that the files they send to the news desks generate cold, hard cash – most of it they never get to see. Because up on the higher floors of the media conglomerates, where the upper management dwells, they’re seen as expendables – just like soldiers – in a cause that’s not theirs.
Wars are an industry. They have always been. Many die, but a few capitalize on them. For this reason, those who choose to sell war in images are no better than any gun dealer: they bring death, because all they’re doing is fueling passions that shouldn’t have been existing in the first place. The Bang Bang Club admitted to it.
For a very short while I was one of those people – fortunate enough, I thought – to be flown into a war zone and sent out to make the news. And it dawned on me, right there, in the armored car, baking in the diesel exhaust smell, that we shouldn’t do what we’re doing. And I stopped, and never looked back. I cherish today every single hour I get to spend without news, newspapers, television or radio and I hope that more will follow in breaking free from the conspiracy of news and useless deaths.

Posted by americandusk | Report as abusive

A brilliant piece of writing Radu!

Posted by CapeTownGirl | Report as abusive

Photos about ordinary life:
“Photo essays in black and white”

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive

It is interesting Many of the great photographers were established before they covered WW2. As usual people have got the the thing backwards. You don’t need to cover war stories to be a great photographer. Great photographers can cover any event .. that’s why they are great.

Posted by Fotogma | Report as abusive

Every year when the World Press Photo exhibition rolls around, people always complain about the brutality of the photos. For photographers and editors, they are compelling and important, but I agree with you here, there should be a segment for War photographs and we should celebrate more positive and uplifting photographs.

Posted by APHovasse | Report as abusive

Excellent article & I completely agree.
Social documentary covers all aspects of life, far too much coverage is given to conflict.

Posted by fasteddie42 | Report as abusive

Well put and much needed call to awareness, Radu. Thought provoking comments, americandusk. As McCluhan said, “The medium is the message”. Image based media, such as photojournalism and video coverage, has the potential of being incendiary in its own right. All of us involved in presenting events to the public have a responsibility to choose what we present from a point of view that is comprehensive of the events unfolding, not simply put forth the shock value aspects. Harder to do perhaps because of the subtleties involved, but far more powerful when done well.

Posted by tg01 | Report as abusive


Your post is every bit as interesting as the article.

Nonetheless, however disingenuous their motivations, I think somebody should chronicle these events brutal as they may be.

As Cormac McCarthy so well put it in his masterpiece Blood Meridian: “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

Assuming that some version of the human race survives, these images will probably be of use to societies in the far future.

And, even if humanity does not survive, these pictures would be of enormous value to the extraterrestrial archeologists who may someday excavate our ruins.

Either way, photographers of these episodes are, unbeknownst to themselves, working for a higher purpose.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Right on Radu, the wannabes that showed up in Libya without even having an assignment last year were a perfect illustration of your point. Seems to get worse every tragedy that comes along…yours is a brave stance to take and I applaud you for it. rtw

Posted by RTWMountain | Report as abusive

I’m just getting into photography and I have been falling into this trap. Focusing on negative things in general. I am going to focus on more positive now instead. Continue to spread your message to young photographers, it is important.

Posted by Radha12 | Report as abusive

I’m a software developer trying to make a living as a photographer. I completely agree with the article, although I have to say I have never been tempted to shoot negative images. My main drive is to capture the details that often pass us by in order to magnify and emphasize the beauty of the world around us.
If anyone has a spare second I’d greatly appreciate any feedback on a few projects of mine:

BTW Radu, eu te-am cunoscut cand eram mic si acum m-am restabilit in Bucuresti. Poate ne intalnim la un moment oportun.

Posted by catmando | Report as abusive