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TOP WAR PHOTOGRAPHER STRESSES COMPOSITION, LIGHTING – AND EMOTIONS

World Press Photo jurors visit Slovakia

THE WORLD Press Photo (WPP) is one of the world’s top competitions for photojournalists and each year thousands of images, both global and local, vie for its awards. Shortly after the results of World Press Photo 2012 (which evaluated the press photos depicting the turbulent events of 2011) were announced in February, the preliminary round of evaluations for the next year of the competition started. On March 20 and 21, an Italian war photographer and past WPP winner, Marco Di Lauro, and a British photo editor for the Reuters newswire, Alexia Singh, visited Slovakia to judge the local entries.

THE WORLD Press Photo (WPP) is one of the world’s top competitions for photojournalists and each year thousands of images, both global and local, vie for its awards. Shortly after the results of World Press Photo 2012 (which evaluated the press photos depicting the turbulent events of 2011) were announced in February, the preliminary round of evaluations for the next year of the competition started. On March 20 and 21, an Italian war photographer and past WPP winner, Marco Di Lauro, and a British photo editor for the Reuters newswire, Alexia Singh, visited Slovakia to judge the local entries.

“I think that the first round is there for the jurors to eliminate inappropriate or ineligible pictures, pictures that are not going to make it to the next round… I think you have to make an emotional bond with the picture, and it has to be quick (considering the number of competing images): You see a picture, and ask yourself: ‘Am I responding to this picture? Does it mean something to me?’ Both emotionally and visually – as I think it is a mixture of both,” Aidan Sullivan, the head of the jury for 2012, said on the World Press Photo website about the photos shortlisted last year for the 2012 competition.

Singh gave a photography workshop on March 20 for those interested in assessing press photographs, and on March 21, Di Lauro, who works for Getty Images, gave a presentation and took part in a public debate on his work. “I don’t care about the camera, I don’t care about technique. I don’t even set up the camera. My camera has the same default settings as when I bought it. All I care about is having this empty box which is like a painter’s canvas which I have to fill in the most sophisticated, complex intellectual way by using composition, lighting and emotions,” Di Lauro said, summing up what he believes makes a good war photographer.

Describing his professional history, he said that he first started working as a paramedic and later became interested in the life of local communities and in aiding and supporting them. After graduating in geo-political studies and finishing his studies at a school of photography, he decided to combine his professional and educational skills and knowledge to become a photographer. He confessed that for him, photography was most important as a way of expressing himself, and that he was interested in it as a medium to reach things important to him, including social issues and living conditions. He said that he chose to record events on film because, he argued, in war you go back to the very nature of a human being, adding that for him such work is almost sociological research.

Di Lauro described starting his work as a war photographer with a decision to go on his own to Kosovo to cover the conflict there. Afterwards, his work was bought and published, and he started to work for global media outlets and later for Getty Images. He added that until quite recently he would have thought such an approach was no longer possible. But he noted that during the ongoing conflict in Syria a young photographer had managed to repeat his trick as recently as autumn 2011. Thus, Di Lauro encouraged all fledgling or even potential war photographers not to be put off and to pursue their dream job. He explained what it takes to become established and to get commissions from well-established media outlets. Instead of stressing technical aspects – as well as pointing out that he uses the default settings on his camera he also noted that he uses a fixed lens and most of the time works at very close range – he laid emphasis on the preparatory work: coming up with good ideas; doing thorough research; finding out about where you are leaving for and the conditions in the country (while noting that ignoring such facts can cost you your life); writing good proposals for magazines and agencies; being physically and mentally able to work in a war zone. He also said that public relations are as important as other considerations, because there is a lot of competition and the market is shrinking. But first, he stressed, you have to have something to say.

Di Lauro explained some of the snags of working as a photojournalist: the constant inner fight to find the correct boundary between what is respectful and fair towards those pictured and what your commissioner has asked you for or what you would like to depict. He said he himself would not take a picture of anyone without his or her consent. He also added that there might be an inner conflict between those providing help (a paramedic, in his case) and the photographer in a situation that requires prompt action. In some cases, you have to consider all possible implications for the “models” on your pictures: if you make a portrayal of a homosexual couple in Afghanistan, for instance, one or both of them might be killed the next day after your pictures are published, as people now have media and internet access almost everywhere.

Singh, meanwhile, said she loved her work as a photo editor as it gave her the chance to communicate with great photographers, enjoy the editor-photographer relationship and the guidance she gives, and also to be the producer in some cases. She said that she was, in fact, too “lazy” to go to war zones herself – and that being a photo editor reflected a different type of mentality from the war photographer.

As for the criteria for photographers and photos, Singh said that for the WPP as well as for Reuters, veracity was crucial and no fundamental changes to pictures were allowed. Moreover, with a newswire like Reuters time pressure does not allow extensive post-production. In a competition, there is more time, and one can try to make the picture more beautiful, but the contents cannot be meddled with. She said that to become a professional photographer working for a newswire like Reuters the requirements might differ from one country to another – depending on logistic conditions sometimes, and on personal opportunities in others. Of the Slovak round of the photo-competition, she said that local photographers have done some good work, especially in their reportage, but that they should be encouraged to make more pictures and to look around them and find good issues and stories, some of which are very photogenic.

“It does not take exotic places or starving children to make a good press photo,” she said. Asked about the criteria for evaluating the World Press Photo contestants, Singh answered that whether the aesthetic side or the contents prevailed depended largely on the individual category. She said that to a great extent, it also depended on the jury and on the compromise they were able to reach, noting that it is great when in the end everybody agrees.

Di Lauro was more critical about what he evaluated, saying that most of the entries he saw in Slovakia did not match most of the criteria for contents, composition, lighting, and storytelling.

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