What makes a World Press Photo of the Year?

March 2, 2016

Congratulations to Warren Richardson for winning World Press Photo of the Year for 2015 for his powerful image of refugees crossing the border from Serbia into Hungary in August 2015. The image’s merit goes well beyond drawing our attention to this humanitarian crisis, giving us important lessons in how to become better visual storytellers.

What made freelance photojournalist Warren Richardson’s photo of refugees stand out amid so many other incredible photographs?

For starters, it is the inherent symbolism within this image. The jurors in the World Press Photo Contest pointed out how the barbed wire in the image speaks to the larger issues of conflict and war. There is also great symbolism in the pose of the presumed father and child on the left of the image. Some audiences will find this eerily symbolic to Michelangelo’s famous statue of Mary holding the Christ child (think of all of the other artists who created their own versions of this famous pose in their own works). This same pose was central to the photo of Alan Kurdi being held by the Turkish gendarmerie, a photo that spread quickly around the world at the same time that Richardson’s photo was taken.

With strategic visual storytelling it’s less about technique and more about substance and meaning. The most powerful images aren’t necessarily the most beautiful or the most technically sophisticated. This one is almost old-school – think of classic 20th century war imagery, like the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima. What it has in substance and meaning is universal and timeless. If you, the viewer, see meaning in a picture, something universal that you’ve identified with, that visual storyteller has found the right image to carry their message.

Note the blurriness of this image. This, too, symbolizes motion, the urgency of this migration. They need to pass across the border quickly as it is closing up. They are harried. The blur conveys their movement at the individual level, as well as at the macro level.

Plus, there is clear emotion in this image. Look at the intensity in the father’s face. You can imagine – and even feel – the strain of this perilous journey.

This photo also raises more questions than it answers. I want to know more about this father and his child. What is their story? Where’s the rest of his family? An intriguing and effective photo should pull you into a story where you can learn more, perhaps even find out how to take action on an issue.

And lastly, his choice to shoot in black and white, with a granular feel, added to the news quality of the story. He captured a feeling that reflected an important moment in history. Our brains are primed to see black-and-white photos as a more objective picture of reality than color, given that we have been conditioned to view black and white photos as coming from news outlets.

Read and view Richardson’s entire photo essay on the flight of the refugees and their efforts to cross from Serbia into Hungary. The combination of his first-person storytelling observing and bringing humanity to the situation, talking with people and his documenting the scenes during the day and at night with his camera, will get your adrenaline going and give you a better understanding of what the refugees are going through as they try to reach their final destination in Europe. He truly transports you to the scene. Congratulations, Mr. Richardson, on your well-deserved award.

(Photo: Warren Richardson)

Liz Banse