Stories that Matter: World Press Photo Exhibition Comes to Phoenix

by Françoise von Trapp | January 21, 2020

Siebe Van Der Zee and Mayor Kate Gallego share a vision for building a better Phoenix: to strengthen the city’s global trade partnerships, demonstrate the importance of the free press, and establish the city’s reputation for art and culture. Hosting the 2019 World Press Photo Contest Exhibition, they agree, is part of achieving that vision.

Van Der Zee, honorary Dutch consulate for Arizona and principal of Vanderzee & Associates, an executive search firm, first brought the World Press Photo Exhibit to Phoenix in 1994 because he noticed that Phoenix’s population represented an international culture and he wanted to nurture that spirit.

Guest speakers at the Opening Ceremonies included (l-r) Babette Warendorf, curator for World Press Photo; Consulate General Gerbert Kunst of the Kingdom of the Netherlands; Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego; and Kristin Gilger, senior associate dean and Reynolds Professor in business journalism. Photo: Meg Potter

“After the impression it made in 1994, I wanted to bring back what we know was a success story,” said Van Der Zee. He added that a global event that takes place in the heart of Phoenix and is supported by the mayor sends a powerful message about international opportunities for Arizona. Gallego agrees. ““It helps cement our place in global arts and culture, as well as journalism,” she said.

So, after a 25-year hiatus, the World Press Photo Exhibition has returned to Phoenix. Opening ceremonies took place January 16, 2020, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, amidst the pomp and circumstance befitting a globally renowned event, and featuring remarks from local and international dignitaries, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego;  Consulate General Gerbert Kunst of the Kingdom of the Netherlands; Kristin Gilger, senior associate dean and Reynolds Professor in business journalism; and Babette Warendorf, curator for World Press Photo.

A guest takes in images of youth military trainees in Russia and the USA.  Photo: Meg Potter

What Is World Press Photo?

World Press Photo is a nonprofit organization, based in Amsterdam, that for six decades has been working to bring awareness of the importance of photojournalism and free press around the globe by sponsoring an annual contest to select the year’s best images in visual journalism, with the intention of connecting the world through stories that matter.

“You don’t have to explain what World Press Photo is to the Dutch,” said Van Der Zee. “We know what it is, and we want to help.” So, he rallied the local Dutch community to support bringing it back to Phoenix, including Martijn Pierik, CEO of Kiterocket, a public relations and creative marketing agency, who was more than eager to lend a hand and the resources of his agency to the effort.Van Der Zee says he hopes the World Press Photo exhibit will create awareness, interest and curiosity among Phoenicians about the global community. He also says he wants to make Phoenix a regular stop on the annual World Press Photo Tour.

Andy Lucich of Kiterocket, who was in charge of logistics, said World Press Photo charges a fee of $25,000 to host the exhibit in a given city. When adding in additional costs, the total that organizers needed to raise was $40,000, which they accomplished through local partnerships with Tuft & Needle, Downtown Phoenix Inc., Davis Miles McGuire Gardner PLLC, MultiTable, The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Bank of America, ASU’s Cronkite School and CCBG Architects.

Phoenix is one of three American cities hosting World Press Photo this year, the others being New York and Washington, D.C. “This is a point of pride for our city,” said Gallego. “It shows our leadership in journalism and is defining our legacy as an art city, with multiple art events every night.”

Pierik officially opened the event with a toast to all who participated in bringing this event to reality. “Thank you for the trust you put in us. We hope to make this an annual event to support independent journalism and freedom of the press. It’s important for us and important for our children.”

Pictures Don’t Lie

During his remarks, Kunst talked about the Netherlands celebrating 75 years of freedom since World War II, and the role the free press takes in maintaining that freedom. “We can’t take freedom for granted,” he said. “The free press is crucial for freedom. Pictures don’t lie. Journalists confront us with challenges of society without any judgment. It’s important to celebrate these fundamental rights. Freedom and equality still need our full attention.” For that reason, he says he is glad that the World Press Photo Exhibition has arrived in Phoenix.

In her remarks, Gilger noted that the Walter Cronkite School is an appropriate venue for the event, which was built using a public bond from the city and where they are training the next generation of journalists. “Visual journalism is the most impactful,” she said. “We want to make a place where the public feels welcome.”

According to Warendorf, what began as an event featuring 500 photos in 1955, this year included 78,801 photographs shot by 4,738 photographers from 129 countries. Ten of the winning photos were shot by U.S. photographers.

So, who decides which are the best photos in the world taken by photojournalists? A jury of 17 independent judges had three weeks to pore over the entries. Their task was to select the most compelling and storytelling images in the following categories: Environment, Spot News, General News, Contemporary Issues, Sports, Nature, Portraits, Long-Term Projects and Digital Story Telling Contest. According to Whitney Johnson, chair of the 2019 jury, they were looking for “images that were relevant, unique, memorable … representing the most significant issues of our time, such as the changing climate and the mass migration of people across the globe.”

Both Van Der Zee and Kunst stressed that the exhibition is not intended to be political, but to present the truth. Van Der Zee wants people to look at the photos in the exhibition and form their own opinions. “People have to make their own observations about the issues. We can’t tell them what to think.” However, he does caution people not to judge until they understand. For example, he overheard someone talking about this year’s winning photo, which depicts a Honduran toddler crying while her mother is being arrested by border control. “They said, ‘How irresponsible!’ referring to the mother,” he said. “But who knows what happened after the photo was taken?”

For those of us old enough to remember, the experience is reminiscent of flipping through the pages of Life Magazine, where full-color, vibrant photos with brief captions captured moments in time, letting the images tell the world’s most critical tales. Strolling through this exhibit, one takes the time to absorb the life-size photos without being able to swipe left, up or click away.

The winning photos range from those that capture, up close, the horrors of war-torn areas of the world to poignant heroic tales of rescuing Bob, a Caribbean flamingo, as an example of efforts to preserve an exotic species. These visual stories bring to life contemporary issues, capturing real people living their lives in compromised conditions.

While some of the images — especially those in the nature and portrait categories — are poignant and uplifting, many of the photos depict very disturbing scenes. “It’s a shame that the majority of them involve human suffering, and humans causing suffering. But I guess that’s the way the world is,” noted Stephen Wood, a Tempe resident and one of the 200 invited guests.

Another guest remarked that she found herself wondering about the photographers behind the cameras — how could they take photos of such tragic scenes, and then walk away from it?

So how is this not political?

“These are photos of stories that we need to tell about hard subjects,” noted Gallego. “It’s not partisan. It sends messages about issues that need attention. It doesn’t espouse ideology. These are difficult topics that need to be addressed.”

“I invite you not just to look at the images, but the story and photographer behind it,” said Warendorf. “Be surprised, be informed and be inspired.”

Free to the Public

The Phoenix exhibition will be open daily to the public from Jan. 17 through Feb. 8, 2020, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 6:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, at Arizona State University Downtown Phoenix Campus, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in the First Amendment Forum.

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