Ukrainian Photographers Demand Removal of Russian Judge From World Press Photo Jury

World Press Photo

The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers (UAPP) is officially oppsing the inclusion of Russian photographer, Mary Gelman, called “Maria” in some publications, as part of the jury for the World Press Photo 2024 competition.

Fear of Bias on the Jury

“The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers opposes the participation of Russian Maria Gelman in the jury of the competition World Press Photo 2024,” the UAPP explains in the English-language version of its statement.

“The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers appeals to the competition management with an urgent demand to change the composition of the jury and exclude the representative of the Russian Federation from its ranks. UAPP considers Gelman’s participation to be illogical and may affect the objectivity of decision-making when evaluating the participants’ works. In addition, Russia’s unprovoked, aggressive, cruel and unjust war against Ukraine has been going on for the 10 years in a row, and we believe that the participation of the representative of the Russian Federation, Maria Gelman, raises a lot of ethical issues,” the association continues.

Ukrainian photographer Valentyn Kuzan, a member of the UAPP, has noted on Facebook that, based on his knowledge, Gelman has not actively reported on Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.

“Especially considering that she, to my knowledge, did not participate in reporting the horrors of this war. But if she would, unlikely it would give her the moral right to evaluate the works of Ukrainian authors,” Kuzan writes in a machine-translated version of his Facebook post.

Kuzan questions whether a Russian photographer should evaluate images of the war in Ukraine, especially when judging photos captured by a Ukrainian photographer.

While a documentary photographer, Gelman has no apparent history as a conflict or war photographer, so it is not evident that she would have cause to photograph Russia’s ongoing military aggression.

There are also some concerns about Gelman having reportedly traveled to Crimea after Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory in 2014.

“Gelman’s photos from Yalta, the city in occupied Crimea, were published in the Russian-language outlet Bird in Flight. The article is from 2015, and according to Ukrainian law, foreigners were allowed to enter Crimea only through the checkpoints from the Ukrainian-controlled side of the administrative border with Russian-occupied Crimea. Gelman has not mentioned how she got to Yalta,” reports the Kyiv Independent.

In the World Press Photo 2023 contest, Ukrainian photographer Evgeniy Maloletka won the “Stories” photo series category in the European region for his photos showing the Russian siege on Mariupol, Ukraine. Some Ukrainian photographers question whether photos showing similar stories will be fairly judged in this year’s competition given Gelman’s participation.

Photojournalists in Ukraine face extreme dangers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there are 17 confirmed journalists who have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war, including 15 with a confirmed motive.

This year’s contest entries have closed, and judging is underway. The regional winners will be announced on April 3rd. As of now, Gelman is among five judges for the European region, sitting alongside chair Anastasia Taylor-Lind (United Kingdom/Sweden), Andreas Trampe (Germany), Gilles Steinmann (Switzerland), and Mariama Attah (United Kingdom). Gelman is an acclaimed photographer and was previously awarded in the 2022 edition of the World Press Photo Contest.

The World Press Photo Foundation’s Stance

This is a complex situation, and some photographers in Ukraine and beyond are understandably extremely concerned about Russia’s influence over its citizens, so PetaPixel contacted the World Press Photo Foundation.

“Photographers and other civilians in Ukraine are facing a brutal situation due to Russia’s continuing attacks,” says Andrew Davies, the World Press Photo Foundation’s communications director. “We have total respect for the journalists who are documenting Russia’s war on Ukraine for the world to see, often doing so with great risks and difficulties. In 2023, images recording these atrocities were showcased to millions around the world through our exhibitions and online channels.”

As for jury selection, the process of selecting jurors is extensive.

“In each regional jury of the contest, we aim for a balance of different characteristics such as professional experience, gender, and approach to photography. Putting this independent jury together is a thorough and careful process, resulting in the selection of 31 experts (five jury members per region, plus a global jury chair),” Davies explains.

“Like all jury members, Gelman was chosen for her high degree of professionalism and expertise. Her work on vulnerability, repression, and the LGBTQ+ community in an increasingly hostile environment is touching, honest, and technically excellent. We trust her ability, as a person and photographer, to fulfill this role,” Davies tells PetaPixel.

“After graduating with a degree in sociology, Mary got involved in photography. She often explores themes such as identity, trauma, vulnerability, and resilience, and seeks to challenge stereotypes and prejudices. She also focuses on life and the ideology of alternative communities and different social groups facing discrimination. The most important part of her practice is diving deeper into the topics and interactions with people, where empathy, trust, and understanding are significant,” writes the World Press Photo Foundation on Gelman’s juror page.

While some international competitions, including many sporting events, have opted to prohibit people from competing under a Russian flag, few have outright excluded Russian citizens altogether. After all, the Russian people are not inherently responsible for the actions of the Russian government or the Russian military. The relationship between a country’s people and that nation’s actions on a global stage is obviously complicated. The World Press Photo Foundation does not exclude photographers from any country from its prestigious competition.

“At the same time, we ensure the jury has the information it needs to judge the work in the context it is produced. So the jury is given the photographer’s nationality, where they are based, information relating to how and why the story was made — such as the motivation to work on the project, the type of project (assignment/personal project), and funding of the project,” Davies says. “The story behind the photography is an important part of the judging criteria, as is accuracy.”

The judging deliberations and voting are kept private. Per the World Press Photo Foundation, “All proceedings and deliberations of each jury are conducted in confidence. Jurors are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to ensure they do not reveal any details of the deliberations.”

Davies says each judge is “selected carefully” for their expertise and professionalism. “We are confident in the ability of all of them to judge fairly.”

“Every year, we trust jurors to judge topics they might feel a connection to (because of their nationality, etc.). This includes jurors from countries that are at war or have repressive governments,” says Davies.

For those concerned that this personal connection by a single judge could significantly impact the results, Davies expresses no such concern.

“Our judging process is also rigorous and tested. No jury member can block any entry from winning. The final decision about both regional and global winners is made by the global jury, which is composed of the regional jury chairs plus the global jury chair.”

Balancing Diversity of Perspective Against Concerns of Fairness

It is easy to understand the UAPP’s concerns. However, demanding an outright ban on a Russian photographer from judging the World Press Photo 2024 competition risks conflating Russian civilians with the actions of the Russian government. A Russian’s lack of public demonization of their government’s actions is not the same as outright approval. While some can reasonably consider someone’s silence or inaction as a tacit agreement, the situation is not so clear in a country with tightly controlled media and strict laws against dissent.

What is clear is that by including Gelman on the European jury for this year’s World Press Photo awards, the World Press Photo Foundation has opened itself to this controversy. However, it may be a conversation, however challenging, that needs to take place because photography and photojournalism are vital in the fight for justice and peace worldwide, and the role photographers from certain countries should serve remains unsettled.