World Press Photo to Become a Think Tank for Photography

8 minute read

Last month, Lars Boering took the reins of World Press Photo, the non-profit organization that manages the world’s most important press photography competition. A former managing director of the Dutch Federation of Photographers and owner of the Lux photo gallery in Amsterdam, Boering has spent the last two decades working to promote the work of photographers and improve their chances in an ever-evolving media landscape. In an interview with TIME LightBox’s Editor Olivier Laurent, he reveals his plans to transform World Press Photo into an unparalleled think tank for photojournalism.

TIME LightBox: In recent years, World Press Photo has been the recipient of much criticism in the industry, especially when the integrity of one winning image was, wrongly, put into question in 2013. What are you planning to do to change the perception that World Press Photo is a monolithic organization that doesn’t take a stand?

Lars Boering: I think World Press Photo is a fantastic organization with a great reach. It plays an important role in the international photographic community. People think highly of it. But, in the past, it’s been neutral and hasn’t had a strong opinion about [issues affecting photographers]. In 2015, we can’t [continue like that]. People expect us to have an opinion and to discuss and debate what’s going on, to be part of finding the solution for photographers and visual storytellers on issues around the future of photography, censorship, freedom of speech, etc. We need to be part of the conversation, and we should be able to work together with a lot of important organizations in this industry to make sure that we’re, in a way, going in the right direction. We can’t be in control, but we can be part of the future.

TIME LightBox: That’s what you’ve been tasked with achieving?

Lars Boering: I’ve tasked myself, actually. We’ve talked about it with the board. It’s a very important decision that we’ve made together, which is important because it ensure that the board, the managing director and the team are all aligned to make it happen. More specifically, I’m tasked with coming up with business models for the organization. There’s a lot we can do. We’re a foundation, so we don’t have to make a profit, but we certainly can be business-like and make money that we can put into our [education] programs and our grants.

TIME LightBox: What form would that take?

Lars Boering: It doesn’t change within a day, of course. World Press Photo is an important brand, so you have to steer it slowly and be precise. For example, we’ve published a research paper about image manipulation in photojournalism. Now, I think we should be travelling all around the world to debate this research and explain why we’ve done this. You have to push it forward.

A lot of organizations emailed me about this report to tell me they were already putting it into practice within their organizations, but they also asked us to be even more involved on that issue.

We’re going to be more outspoken. For instance, when the shootings happened at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I put out a message condemning these attacks, expressing our concerns for freedom of the press and information. It’s something that World Press Photo had not done in the past and while it looks like a small thing, it was about time we took a stand. It’s just an example, but I think you can expect more of that in the near future.

TIME LightBox: Looking at the issue of image manipulation and the different rules that World Press Photo has put into place in the last couple of years, what’s next? Are you going to take a leadership role in defining what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to toning, etc.?

Lars Boering: I don’t think we should tell the world what it should do. What I think is that we should keep on researching it, and work to find common ground with many of the important organizations in photojournalism. It’s an ongoing and changing issue, and we should look at it together and decide, together, whether [our standards] need to change each year.

TIME LightBox: What type of organizations?

Lars Boering: We should be talking to everybody. I’d really like World Press Photo to become the think tank of the industry. And a think tank should invite everybody at the table to discuss – people from the photojournalism and journalism fields, but also people working in data research, visualization, etc. It should be a mix of traditional and innovative organizations. It’s where the change is coming from. We should keep moving and keep the debate going.

TIME LightBox: It seems to be the one thing missing in this industry: people coming together to discuss the issue and to come up with actual solutions.

Lars Boering: People keep on asking me what the new business model is for photography, what we should do? Some people want to go back to the way things were before. But if you look at the history of photography, anyone that has tried to stop these changes from happening have always lost. You have to go with these changes – but that doesn’t mean you have to be a victim of it.

TIME LightBox: In recent years, it seems that everyone in the world is changing photography, except photographers.

Lars Boering: Yes, I called this creative conservatism. That’s very dangerous for photographers. Creative conservatism is very much part of this industry and that’s okay, but it shouldn’t be dominant. People are always surprised when I say that I’m very optimistic when I look at the opportunities and chances photographers and visual storytellers have these days. But I really do think so. If you look at these changes in a conservative way, then you’ll never find new ways. It will [stop] you from evolving.

TIME LightBox: A lot of the organizations that are changing photography today are technology companies, from Apple to Facebook, Instagram, among many others. Should World Press Photo reach out to these companies?

Lars Boering: I think what’s interesting is that they reach out to us as well, and that tells us a lot about how they think about photography. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d end up in partnerships with technology companies in the future. I think that what they do is very interesting, and they also make us realize that there’s a huge place for photojournalism in their world.

What fascinates me is that there’s a huge avalanche of images in the world, but these companies seem to be looking for genuine content as well. If the content is not interesting or intelligent, it’s likely that it will be disappear very quickly. And that’s where World Press Photo, with its archives of 12,000 winning images, can play an important role.

TIME LightBox: You mentioned that you’d like to expand the grants program. How so?

Lars Boering: We can look at the World Press Photo competition and the categories we offer. For example, this year, we’ve introduced the long-term category for the first time. There are a lot of photographers doing that kind of work. And the popularity of this category tells us that we’ve found a category that’s very much connected to the everyday business of photographers.

We could launch a competition for photo books, but there are a lot of these out there already. If we were to do it, it would have to be special and different.

Another thing on my list is to look at ways we can help photographers tell their stories and produce their bodies of work. We have the Tim Hetherington Grant, which is great because it helps a photographer come up with a story. So we’d like to explore that [further].

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at