Kansas City Public Library exhibit spotlights work of world’s top photojournalists.

We live in a distinctly visual age, inundated by images caught easily on smart phones and digital cameras. This year, alone, it’s estimated we’ll take more than a trillion photographs worldwide. Nothing is too small, too personal, too off-putting to shoot and post to Instagram, Facebook or some such social media site.

Amid all the clutter, great photography has lost none of its power.

Walk through the winning images from the 72nd Pictures of the Year International (POYi) contest, the oldest and most prestigious photojournalism contest in the world. One depicts a ghastly serenity in the aftermath of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Another makes clear a family’s shared anxiety after the first night of violence in Ferguson, Mo. From Sierra Leone comes a searing shot of medical workers, in protective bodysuits and sealed masks, lifting an Ebola-stricken man who had escaped from an isolation ward – and would die shortly after his return.

Collectively, the photos spotlight the most compelling news events, political trends and social issues of the past year. Fifty of the best, ranging from news and sports shots to memorable feature photos and portraits, are featured in a Pictures of the Year International exhibition in the Genevieve Guldner Gallery at the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown Central Library. Titled “Visions of Excellence,” the collection remains on display through Nov. 29.

“Enlarging these prints (to) two feet wide and putting them in front of someone, people come away drop-jawed at the experience,” says Rick Shaw, a former newspaper photographer, photo editor and designer who now works at MU’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute as POYi director.

“The photo galleries on most websites are timed. The images are small depending on the device you’re on. But in a (formal) gallery environment, when a static print is on a wall, viewers have command of how long they spend with the image, how they receive communication and content, where their eyes go and what they take away from it. It’s really a dynamic thing to see.”

Just as important, he says, “people come away with a greater sense of the importance that journalism plays in the role of the so-called fourth estate in a democratic society, covering important issues.”

The exhibit already has had showings at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles and the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, among other U.S. and international venues. At the Newseum, a journalism museum on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, it drew an estimated 400,000-plus viewers in six months.

Anne Ducey, the Kansas City Public Library’s exhibits director, says she hopes to make the POYi exhibit an annual Library offering. “It’s a great fit,” she says. “It’s educational, a window into important events and issues. There’s great interest in photography. Coupled with our speaking events, it’s a very broadening experience.”

Two Library programs in November complement the exhibit. David Chancellor, one of the world’s most decorated photographers and the winner of POYi’s 2014 Environmental Vision Award for his documentation of anti-poaching efforts in Kenya, talks about his work on November 3. A panel of veteran photographers, including The Kansas City Star’s David Euilitt, discusses sports photography on November 17.

Both events are at the Central Library.

“The Pictures of the Year” exhibit and its spotlight on photojournalism come at a time of flux in the industry. Print publications – newspapers and magazines – have struggled as tastes turn increasingly digital. The number of newspaper photographers, artists and videographers nationwide has dropped by more than a third in the past five years according to an annual survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, outpacing reductions of 18% for reporters and writers and 13% for editors and online producers.

The Chicago Sun Times eliminated its entire, 28-person photography staff a couple of years ago (subsequently rehiring four as “multimedia journalists”), and Sports Illustrated laid off all of its staff photographers this past January.

POYi’s Shaw joins others in pointing to a continued need for both print and visual journalists even if the platforms that display their work are changing. The “Pictures of the Year” exhibit, he says, underscores the value of trained, skilled and dedicated photographers.

“The real definition of photojournalism is that it’s a balance between aesthetics – the art of photography – and content,” Shaw says. “Does it mean something? Does it say something?

“The quality of this work amplifies the difference between professional-level photojournalists and citizen journalists who happen to be on the scene and snap something with their cellphones.”

See. Feel. Appreciate.

–Steve Wieberg

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