Istanbul Photo Awards ‘stops time, makes you reflect on 12 months’

Head of jury says contest’s strength comes from passion of photographers worldwide, universal nature of photography

"What is great about the Istanbul Photo Awards is that every year, you stop the time and you realize, you take time to just really see what went on for 12 months," said the head of the contest's jury this year.

Marion Mertens, a France-based visual storyteller, gave her impressions on this year's winning photographs to Anadolu Agency.

Mertens said the Photo of the Year, titled Mom Love and taken by Bangladeshi photographer Mohammed Shajahan, was "a very strong picture," and its strength derived from harboring news and human and personal qualities at the same time.

Noting that the photograph appeals to the viewer and reminds them of the occasions that were "stolen" from loved ones during the pandemic, she added that "a lot of people, myself included, had a lot of moments where we were thinking about our parents, and we couldn't see them, or we had to get organized to see them."

"And I think it's the reason why it's a strong picture," she said. "Because it's a very human picture."

Mertens commented on the outstanding technicality of the picture, which was taken in black and white with an unclear background.

"It brought more strength to the picture because, for some reason, it stood out. I also think what was interesting about that picture is that we don't see much; it's a very close-up picture. So you don't really know which country it is. So it's a matter of relating more; you don't think it's far away, in a way. It's mom, and there's a heart, and the flowers... and I think it's universal, isn't it?"

In her fifth year on the jury, Mertens touched on the variety of perspectives deriving from different backgrounds within the jury.

"We all are very different. We all come from different countries. We all have different skills," she said.

"What is interesting about the contest is that we get more photos from more places. There are different contests all around the world, and we always are different," Mertens continued.

"Not being from the same country or the same department or the same area of expertise makes the jury really strong," she added.

Excited to have two more awards -- Story Daily Life and Story Portrait -- in the contest's seventh year, she said: "So what is interesting about the Istanbul Photo Awards is that we are allowed to pick a little bit of everything."

"If you look at the sports winners this year, you have action, but the first prize is the COVID supporters, the supporters in the Czech Stadium, frustrated not to be able to attend. So it's more of a human picture. But there's also the motorbike crash, which is an action picture. And then you have the third prize. It is more of a very visual sports picture with [the photo titled] 'Log Pile Bouldering.'"

Mertens also gave insight into the criteria that the jury adopted while selecting the winners. Thinking of the most significant criterion, she said: "It's the story. It's what it tells. But it's also what it shows. It's also what it makes you feel in a way. So it's always a mixture of those three or more things."

"But I think, for me, what makes a photo really strong is what it tells you and how you connect as a human being to the picture," she remarked. "The human side is always what I find the strongest to get attracted to a picture."

Regarding the winner of the Single News second prize picture, which shows inmates in a hard-to-enter prison in El Salvador where dangerous gang members were incarcerated, Mertens said access is a crucial criterion for photography as well.

"You have your way, your talent as a photographer, but one of the tenets of photography is to be at the right place," she emphasized.

"For example, for Yuri Cortez, the photographer, I think we all agreed that the picture was really good, but the access was amazing. And I think it's when you can combine access and a good photo, it's amazing," Mertens said.

Mertens said despite the coronavirus pandemic that has been raging worldwide for over a year, the variety of pictures and subjects submitted for the contest was impressive. She said the number of photographs amid battling a pandemic was notable.

"We have a lot of people from every single part of the world and a lot of photos -- photos that we've never seen, that were not published."

Stating that the jury received a great number of photographs reflecting the life with the novel coronavirus, Mertens underlined, "What was interesting about COVID is that the pictures were never the same."

"We didn't realize there were pictures of young people with COVID and doctors, and then medical research, and sports and COVID... But in different parts and different levels of society… It made you travel all around the world... And it's not the same picture. Never," she said.

Mertens congratulated all the participants, who made it "very difficult" for the jury to choose winners.

She called on photojournalists worldwide to participate in the contest, regardless of whether they work for big agencies or are freelancers.

"We were very happy when we realized that there were a lot of freelancers that were winners. Because it's interesting; it shows that independent photographers show their work, and they can win," she said.

"It's not only big organizations that can have awards and that produce material."

She expressed her disappointment, however, that the world of photography is different than when she started shooting 35 years ago, in that "the agencies pay less than they used to [for photographs]."

"I think the industry is in trouble and is suffering. The industry of photography is suffering. But I think the photographers have their passion and their desire to shoot," she noted.

"I think watching a photo is always something that changes you. It opens up your worlds. Sometimes it shocks you, sometimes you don't agree, sometimes you're surprised, but I think it's something that doesn't leave you intact, or doesn't leave you. It has an effect," Mertens said.

"I love photography, I think every single person should keep shooting photographs and showing what the world is, and not feeling afraid of showing reality," she said. "Because photography is the best language in the world. It's universal."

Information related to the 2021 jury and award-winning photographs can be accessed via the website:  

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