10 things we learned at World Press Photo 2018

Hundreds of runners cross the Sahara Desert, seen from above.
Erik Sampers won third prize in the Sports Singles category for this image, Marathon des Sables. Participants set off on a timed stage of the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands), in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco. The race is run over 250km in temperatures of up to 50℃. It is split into six stages, over seven days, with one long stage of more than 80km. The first Marathon des Sables was held in 1986 with 186 competitors. The event now attracts more than 1,000 participants from around 50 countries. © Erik Sampers

The world's top photojournalists, editors and agents flocked to the 2018 World Press Photo Festival in Amsterdam, Netherlands, from 13 to 14 April. More than 160 category-winning images by 42 photographers from 22 countries were on display at the event, alongside winning digital storytelling projects. 

They told stories of heartbreak and fear, as well as transformation and hope. Attendees were able to delve deeper into these stories by listening to the programme of talks and speaking to the photographers as they milled around the Westergasfabriek venues and De Nieuwe Kerk exhibition.

Erik Sampers won third prize in the Sports Singles category for this image, Marathon des Sables. Participants set off on a timed stage of the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands), in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco. The race is run over 250km in temperatures of up to 50℃. It is split into six stages, over seven days, with one long stage of more than 80km. The first Marathon des Sables was held in 1986 with 186 competitors. The event now attracts more than 1,000 participants from around 50 countries. © Erik Sampers

Launching the exhibition at Canon Opening Night, attended by over 500 visitors, World Press Photo Managing Director Lars Boering and Canon Marketing Director Lee Bonniface presented all category winners with two personalised copies of the 2018 World Press Photo yearbook. Digital Storytelling winners were presented with a print of a still image from their projects.

Lee Bonniface said: "A photojournalist is someone who tells a story, influences and changes perceptions and makes the world a better place. They put themselves on the front line, they put themselves in difficult situations, to tell the stories that need to be told. That’s why we have continued to support World Press Photo for the past 26 years."

We attended tens of talks over the course of the festival, and interviewed many of the Canon photographers behind the winning images. Here are 10 things we learned from World Press Photo 2018.

1. Humans have incredible endurance

Christian Ziegler’s

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What better type of story is there than one of overcoming the odds and achieving impossible feats? At French photographer Erik Sampers' talk, he shared the series of images that accompanied his aerial shot of the Marathon des Sables (top), which won him third prize in the Sports Singles category. In his documentary images of the athletes competing in the 250km race across the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, we saw their extraordinary feats of endurance. Crisp action shots revealed individuals climbing steep slopes in 50°C heat, while candid images of rows of runners in the medical tents at the end of each gruelling day highlighted the toll it took on their bodies.

"It's a race with many stories," Erik said, adding that he loved covering it "because of the attitude of the runners." One runner that he focused on was a former British Army soldier who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan. Erik followed his journey through the Sahara as he ran – and completed – the race with the army colleague who had helped to rescue him.

Erik also shared photographs from another series, The Green Dream, which tracked two Chinese men – one missing both arms, the other blind – who are single-handedly reforesting a huge swathe of land in China that others had thought barren and hopeless. In 10 years they have planted 30,000 trees, "for the future, for the children," explained Erik.

Lorri Cottrill sits at a desk in her home office, her face obscured by a cloud of e-cigarette smoke.
Espen Rasmussen won third prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category for his series, White Rage - USA. Here Lorri Cottrill (45), leader of the US neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, smokes an e-cigarette in her home in Charleston, West Virginia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © Espen Rasmussen, Panos Pictures, VG

2. Asking 'why?' goes a long way

It's all-too easy to judge groups of people with attitudes or lifestyles that jar with your view of the world, but Norwegian photographer Espen Rasmussen spoke enthusiastically about finding out more about such groups in his series for Panos Pictures, White Rage – USA, which won third prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category. He explained that he'd observed a rise in the profile of far-right groups in Europe and the US while covering the arrivals of Syrian refugees in Europe.

"Nobody can disagree that there is a rage there, so I wanted to find out why," said Espen. The Canon-using photographer travelled around Europe meeting extreme right-wing groups for his first series, then travelled to the US for this series. He managed to gain people's trust enough to photograph inside their homes and to show personal moments of their lives, without agreeing with their views. By taking the time to speak to his subjects, it became clear to him that the underlying reasons for this rage are complex. "It's about big things. It's about unemployment, violence, insecurity and fear," he reflected.

3. Watching a story build helps you tell it more powerfully

American photographer Ryan Kelly explained how, as a staff photographer on local newspaper The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia, he saw the story of racial tensions build over time. What started with disagreements over the city's plans to remove the statue of Confederate icon General Robert E Lee "spiralled out of control", culminating in the car attack on protesters against the Unite the Right rally on 12 August 2017. Ryan's photograph of the violence won him second prize in the Spot News Singles category. 

"The rally had been planned for a long time; we had been planning on covering it from all angles for the newspaper, so I was there early in the day," said Ryan. He described how the rally-goers and protesters had clashed before it was due to start, causing the police to shut it down. Ryan later found a group of protesters marching together peacefully, and photographed them. As he crossed the street, the car came and crashed into the crowd. With his Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens zoomed right in to 200mm, he held the shutter release down and captured the terrible moment frame-by-frame.

Pete Souza talks at World Press Photo 2018.
Pete Souza presented images and stories from his book Obama: An Intimate Portrait to a packed auditorium at World Press Photo 2018. © Paul Hackett

4. Trust and using a small footprint are key

One of the most popular events of the festival was the talk by Pete Souza, former Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama and the Director of the White House Photo Office, who presented his new book Obama: An Intimate Portrait. "My goal [on being appointed to the role] was to create the best photographic archive that had ever been for a president," Pete explained, adding that he followed Obama around all day, every day. "Even though some times were like watching paint dry, it's worth it when you capture remarkable moments."

Pete shared a selection of intimate photographs from his years with the Obama administration and family, telling the crowd that the relationship he'd developed with Obama in his time on the Chicago Tribune, and following Obama in his days as senator, were key. He also believed that having a small footprint – using quiet kit with no flash, as well as fitting telephoto lenses – helped him to capture honest moments, such as people's reactions in meetings, without intruding.

5. Finding different angles is interesting

Former Canon Ambassador Giulio Di Sturco explained that, while many people before had talked about the huge number of transgender people in Thailand, he wanted to take a different point of view and examine the industry behind gender reassignment. His shot More Than a Woman won second prize in the Contemporary Issues Singles category. He followed the woman in the image, Olivia Thomas, for the whole process of her reassignment, and found the moment that she saw the results of her surgery was the most moving. "It's a powerful story of transformation," Giulio said. "It's not about beauty; it's about saving their lives."

Giulio also shared his series of images of Sophia the AI robot, explaining that he'd seen Sophia in the news but didn't want to cover her story in the same way as everyone else, simply photographing her speaking. Instead, he wanted to find out the story of her creation and development. The lab where Sophia was built was smaller than his kitchen, Giulio said, "but this was more interesting because you'd never expect the future to be made in this kind of place."

Two Japanese macaques perform on stage, one dressed in a waistcoat, the other in a Donald Trump mask and suit.
Jasper Doest's Sacred No More was awarded second prize in the Nature Stories category. In recent years, the Japanese macaque, best known as the snow monkey, has become habituated to humans. An increasing macaque population in the countryside means the monkeys raid crops to survive; in cities, macaques are tamed and trained for the entertainment industry. Jasper documented the story between 15 January 2016 and 2 October 2017. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

6. Asking yourself "what's the story?" goes a long way

When Dutch photographer Jasper Doest started working with National Geographic, his focus was on the beauty of wildlife and nature. But a chat with the magazine's editor changed his approach to photography. "I was just focusing on pretty images of Japanese macaques. I pitched the project, and my editor at National Geographic magazine asked me, 'what's the story?' I couldn't really answer that question, so I started zooming out and thinking of the bigger picture," Doest told Canon Europe at the World Press Photo Festival.

Inspired by his editor, he started focusing on the relationship between humans and macaques, documenting how the primate known as the snow monkey has gone from being revered to ridiculed, and is now seen as a pest and mocked in the entertainment industry. This year, Jasper's macaque project Sacred No More won second prize in the Nature Stories category of the 2018 World Press Photo Contest.

7. Photojournalists can create change

Photojournalism isn't just about finding stories; we can also help people in need by showing the truth about their problems, we learned from Stephanie Sinclair's Sem Presser lecture. The World Press Photo and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist shared her long-term project Too Young To Wed, about the issues facing child brides around the world. Faced with magazine editors and government officials in the US claiming that child brides were rare, Stephanie has dedicated 15 years to this project, which proves otherwise.

She has visited and revisited young girls forced into marriage too young, documenting frightened children about to get married, girls who have been injured by abusive husbands, young women who have escaped to shelters, girls who have given birth before they have fully developed, those who have survived unimaginable abuse, and the brave local women working to protect them.

Stephanie's series has grown into an NGO, also called Too Young To Wed, which has brought survivors over to the US to share their stories with Congress, to help bring about change. It has also set up the Tehani Photo Workshops, which teaches girls who have survived child marriage photography skills. "The best way to help is to empower girls; they're their best advocates," said Stephanie of the project, which sees girls grow in confidence as they come to terms with their experiences and develop valuable friendships. Lars Boering, Director of the World Press Photo Foundation, donated €1,000 to the NGO at the end of the talk and successfully encouraged the audience to donate cash there and then.

Rows of factory workers stand in a chicken processing factory, wearing pink overalls and white masks.
George Steinmetz won second prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category for his series, Feeding China. Rapidly rising incomes in China have led to a changing diet and increasing demand for meat, dairy and processed foods. The food and agricultural industry is under pressure. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens. © George Steinmetz, for National Geographic

8. Conveying scale adds to a story

When US-based documentary photographer George Steinmetz went to China a few years ago on an assignment for National Geographic, he was astounded by the country's scale of food production. As China becomes increasingly wealthy, people want more meat and dairy products in their diets, and feeding all the animals involved is becoming a sustainability challenge.

Using a paraglider and his Canon EOS 5DS R with a 50.6MP sensor and a low-pass cancellation filter for super-sharp detail, George went to dumpling factories, pig slaughter houses and dairy farms to show the scale of production and consumption from a new perspective, hoping that it would draw attention to the impact of meat and dairy consumption in the US and Europe, as well as in China. "I prefer photographing from above, but not from super far away – that way you can see the expanse of things, you can see the scale, but it's three-dimensional at the same time," he told Canon Europe. His series, Feeding China, was awarded second prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category of this year's photo contest.

9. Not all newspapers have rapidly-declining photo budgets

At the Danish broadsheet Politiken, Photo Editor-in-Chief Thomas Borberg presides over a department with around 20 employees – photographers, apprentices, editors and researchers, as well as a large network of freelancers and stringers. He believes that the reason his department hasn't suffered budget cuts to the same extent as many other newspaper photography departments is that Politiken views its photographers a certain way.

"Politiken has a long and proud tradition of photography. Since the paper featured its first photograph in 1908, photography has been valued as highly as verbal and graphical storytelling. That means we're not viewed as technicians, the way photographers are at many other newspapers, but rather as storytellers. I think that's the reason they let us keep a large team and still consider us to be an important department," he told Canon Europe.

A rhino lies on a dirt floor against a wall, a red blindfold around its eyes and number spray painted on its side.
Neil Aldridge's Waiting For Freedom was awarded first prize in the Environment Singles category. On 21 September 2017, a young white rhino is drugged and blindfolded, and about to be released in Okavango Delta, Botswana, after its relocation from South Africa for protection from poachers. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens. © Neil Aldridge

10. Positivity is powerful

Most wildlife photographers are driven by a desire to reach people and convey the importance of conservation, but how do you tell difficult and sometimes heartbreaking stories without turning people off? Conservationist and photographer Neil Aldridge believes that the key to holding the attention of a fickle audience is to tell a positive story. His photograph of a drugged and blindfolded white rhino won first prize in this year's newly established Environment Singles category, showing how the rhino had been relocated from South Africa to Botswana to protect it from poachers.

"We're now 10 years into the new poaching crisis. More than three rhinos are being poached every day in South Africa alone. But I've been trying to focus more on the positive stories. They've been hard to find, and sometimes it's about the efforts that a single person is going through to save a rhino, or an orphanage where people are trying to save rhino youngsters that are orphans due to the poaching. I really try to engage the audience, and a lot of people don't want to see the blood and gore that quite often comes with poaching. Being able to tell positive stories or at least show wider issues, such as the rhino poaching crisis, in a more clever or thought-provoking way is important," he said at the World Press Photo Festival.

The World Press Photo exhibition will be on display at De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, until 22 July, before touring 100 cities and 45 countries until March 2019.

Written by Ella Taylor and Kathrine Anker

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