The World Photography Awards

The camera is perhaps one of the most important inventions. Not only did it change how we perceive our experiences and memories, but also how we view the world. The concepts of reality and fiction are often blurred in this medium. Over the past century, photography has flourished on a global scale, and more recently has embraced digital technology. For the first time ever, in spring 2008, photography will have its own global awards in Cannes.

“The [insert genre or discipline here] Oscars” is a wildly lazy and overused phrase — we have the “Bollywood Oscars” (International Indian Film Awards), the “Illustration Oscars” (Association of Illustrators Awards) and even the “Porn Oscars” (UK Adult Film Awards). So I will refrain from referring to the SONY World Photography Awards in this way, although it is surprising that it has taken until 2008 — 171 years after the invention of photography as we know it — for the photographic equivalent of the “O” word.

“Photography is such a massive industry, and it’s very fragmented,” says WPA founder Scott Gray. “Each constituent part is massive; each discipline has its own industry, its own skills set. The fundamentals are the same though, and we want to bring them all together on one platform. We hope to set a unifying global benchmark, a destination point for photographers.”

The awards will take place from the 21-25 April 2008 in Cannes, France. It will include a showcase of over 330 images, as well as a retrospective of some of the greats of photography. On the 24 April, the awards will be presented. There are both professional and amateur categories, with 11 categories for professionals and eight for amateurs, ranging from fashion to landscape, advertising to portraiture.

“We’re looking for the year’s best work as well as undiscovered talent,” says Gray. “Digital technology has changed the landscape of photography. We define amateur as someone who doesn’t earn their living from photography — but this doesn’t mean the quality is any less. The quality of the entries is absolutely phenomenal.”

“Everyone’s a photographer now,” says acclaimed photojournalist Tom Stoddart. “The awards will hopefully be a platform to bring professional and amateur photographers together. Photography has become accessible to millions in the last few years, through digital technology and camera phones. You go to a concert and everyone’s waving their phones in the air, taking pictures, sending them to their friends. It’s not an exclusive genre for people who make a living out of it. It can now reflect the lives of ordinary people.”

Since the millennium, photography has gone through a veritable revolution, sparking renewed interest in the discipline as both a means of communication and as an art form. Stoddart’s iconic images of war-torn and disaster-stricken populations have earned him a place on the honorary board at the WPAs, which represents the academy — a wider group of esteemed professionals who judge the entries.

“I took one look at the other names on the board,” says Stoddart, “people like Susan Meiselas — amazing photographers. It really is a privilege to be asked.”

“The academy includes critics, academics, gallery owners, as well as photographers,” says Gray. “They are basically the judge and jury — and they also steer us towards relevant topics. It’s a collection of the most objective, influential and respected people we could find.”

In this age of CCTV, paparazzi and camera phones, the awards promise to sort the wheat from the chaff of photography, separating it from the function of everyday documentation. “The vulgarisation, digital manipulation and visual overload offered to the public with so much of current photography urgently needs some checks and balances,” says honorary board member Elliott Erwitt. “I am happy to join my colleagues in seeking out the best image makers and rewarding their craft.”

As well as the competition, which will become an annual event, the World Photographic Academy will help develop and promote talented up and coming photographers. The decision to include amateur categories is an unusual one, but has been met with nothing but praise.

“We are looking for the next Rankin,” says Gray of the importance of amateur entries. “Photography is such an expressive form — if you can catch that moment.”

The main award will be the Iris d’or, the winner of which will receive the title Sony World Photography Awards Photographer of the Year, £12,500 and entry into the World Photographic Academy for future years. There will also be individual category awards and a lifetime achievement award.

The future of photography looks bright. “I believe it will be similar to the way email has grown,” says Gray, “in the early 90s people started to have email at their offices, and now everyone’s running around with Blackberrys.”

Stoddart believes increased accessibility to photography will give a voice to the voiceless people of the world. “I think in the future, instead of people like me telling people’s stories, they will be able to tell their own stories. When people affected by Aids have access to electricity and photography. They say everyone has access to the Internet, but the truth is that at least half the world doesn’t. Whole populations of people in the Amazon have been wiped out, and they never had a chance to tell their stories. We live in the age of the image. We see images every moment of the day — they surround us. It’s a golden age of photography.”

As an international competition, the SONY World Photography Awards promise to celebrate and further this golden age for many years to come. For more information visit:

Poppy O’Neill