10 World Press Photo Awards, 10 Backstories

Ten female photojournalists share the stories behind their iconic award-winning images


Joanne Rathe Strohmeyer documented the first black community permitted to take public buses with whites during Apartheid South Africa. Jane Evelyn Atwood was the first photojournalist to intimately document the AIDS crisis in Europe. It was the first time an AIDS sufferer permitted his face to be shown in Europe. Wendy Sue Lamm followed her instincts, and with bravery, worked even as her colleague was shot. Jodi Cobb made eloquent images of the secretive society of the Geisha. Susan Watts’ first opioid story, photographed twenty years ago resonates to this day. These stories dominated the news and social currents of the time.

Why were 80’s and 90’s significant? It was a time when a number of women entered the photojournalism work force, competing with men on a daily basis in newspapers, magazines, wires, photo agencies and out on the battlefield. Jodi Bieber and Carol Guzy (to name just two trailblazers) have won ten and eleven World Press Photo Awards, respectively; accomplishments that are a testament to their drive, determination and vision.

With the digital revolution upon us, photojournalism seems like a one global community now, but photojournalism has deeper roots in the United States and Europe. The term “photojournalism” was first coined at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1925. The first professional photojournalism program — The Missouri Photo Workshop — founded by Clifton C. Edom in 1949, continues training photographers to this day.

News-driven photo agencies were born in Paris with an emphasis on close working relationships with editors and their publications. Agencies like Gamma, Sygma, Sipa and American agencies like Black Star and Contact Press Images, sent photographers they represented all over the world, at first, often on spec. It was a golden age of photojournalism when even unaffiliated photographers scraped together money to send themselves all over because they felt compelled to tell the story and there were magazines dying to print it. It was always work first.


This is an occasional series highlighting women’s role in photojournalism, to help bridge the knowledge gap of women’s accomplishments in photojournalism. See and read the first in the series: One Piece Of Advice.


Living With AIDS: Photo Daily Life Story 1988 © Jane Evelyn Atwood / Contact Press Images

Jane Evelyn Atwood

Jean-Louis was the first person with AIDS in Europe to be photographed to appear in the press. I lived with him the last four months of his life to do the story. After the first publication, in Paris Match, a young student wrote and said she hadn’t understood what AIDS was until she saw our story. She put a tribute to Jean-Louis in the school newspaper and I learned that although only thirty kilometres from Paris, in 1987, the school had never had any information about AIDS — until she put it in the paper, until Match published it, until Jean-Louis allowed himself to be photographed.


TIME magazine commissioned a portrait series of women in Afghanistan. Bibi Aisha: Photo of the Year 2011 © Jodi Bieber

Jodi Bieber

Aisha was living in a shelter for women in Kabul when I met her. Aisha was held down and had her nose and ears cut off by her husband and family as punishment for trying to run away from her husband in southern Afghanistan.

During the shoot I put down my camera and said to Aisha that I cannot imagine how it must have felt to be pinned down and violated so brutally. I also commented what a beautiful women she was and that with surgery her external beauty would return. I asked her if we could work together to show her inner strength, her inner beauty, her power … the room felt light, as if she got what I was saying. She looked back at the camera and that’s when I took this photograph.

Aisha is now living in the U.S. with an Afghan-American family and is undergoing a long process of reconstructive surgery and healing.


Geisha: Photo Daily Life Story 1986 © Jodi Cobb / National Geographic

Jodi Cobb

It was spring of 1985 and one hundred photographers gathered in Japan to photograph for 24 hours for the book series A Day in the Life. My assignment was the geisha of Kyoto. Geishas’ distinctive makeup turn them into perfect but anonymous women, women who all shared the same face. I was dazzled by their preposterous beauty.

A blast of sunlight, reflected from a car window across the street, illuminated the lady’s face as she stepped from behind a screen. I isolated the iconic shape of her lips, tightly sealed to perfectly symbolize the secrecy of her world. The photograph led to my book Geisha: the Life, the Voices, the Art and launched my lifelong passion to explore the often secret and hidden worlds of women around the world.


Liberia Execution: Spot News Story 1997 © Corinne Dufka

Corinne Dufka

The NPFL militiamen discovered the man hiding in an abandoned market during a lull in the vicious outbreak of fighting which gripped Monrovia in April 1996.

“I’m a civilian!” he asserted, desperately, explaining that he’d ventured out to forage food for his family. But the victim’s ethnicity was all they needed. The militiamen dragged their ‘enemy’ down the empty street, violently ripping off his clothes and pummelling him for blocks. They stopped suddenly, then pushed him into the road and opened fire at his back. Until the moment the shots rang out, I wanted, perhaps needed, to believe that — even in the context of a war as bitter as Liberia’s — a sense of humanity, however fractured, could prevail.

As I developed my film in the sanctuary of my hotel room, my emotions were bifurcated between relief that the powerful image was in focus, and pain at having witnessed human life treated with such utter cruelty and disdain. It is a feeling which repeated itself countless times in my career as a photojournalist and one which I have yet to reconcile.


Spot News Story 1995: A U.S. soldier steps in to protect a man suspected of throwing a grenade into a joyous democracy march, killing and injuring numerous pro-Aristide demonstrators in yet another act of intimidation by para-military thugs. The soldiers arrested him, saving his life from an angry and bitter crowd looking for justice after many years of repression. Port-au-Prince, Haiti © Carol Guzy/ Washington Post

Carol Guzy

There was a pro-democracy march after the troops arrived. However, it was still a time of anarchy. Explosions obliterated the joy and we put wounded in our vehicle for the hospital.

The crowd grabbed a man, about to tear him apart thinking he had thrown the grenades. Mob justice was the norm. As tends to be my norm, I chose what seemed a poor position to cover the chaos. As gunfire erupted, I hit the ground directly in front of a U.S. marine protecting the man and trying to establish order.

Documenting from that perspective actually provided a compelling image from a historic time in Haiti’s history. Sometimes destiny puts us exactly where we are meant to be as photojournalists.


Going Home: General News Story 1997 © Yunghi Kim / Contact Press Images

Yunghi Kim

I spotted Yolanda Mugeni on the road. My instincts told me to follow her home to personalize this massive story; the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. After watching Rwandans drift home for days, I wanted to see where they would settle. The two-year genocide had killed 500,000 and many Rwandans had left murdered families and torched villages behind. Cholera claimed another half-a-million in the squalid refugee camps.

Yolanda’s journey started two weeks before. Her husband had died in the camp. She remained with her children while caring for her neighbors’ children who were by then orphaned.

I walked with Paula Sculley and Radhika Chalasani, following Yolanda for four hours. I vividly remember every step hiking through the Rwandan countryside witnessing its profound beauty. On arrival, Yolanda found her mother-in-law alive and they embraced and wept. I photographed this moment; the reunion had all of us in tears.


West Bank: Spot News 1998. As he hurls a stone at Israeli soldiers, a Palestinian is shot in the divided West Bank town of Hebron. © Wendy Sue Lamm

Wendy Sue Lamm

On my third day as a staff photographer at Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Jerusalem, I went with a colleague to the West Bank town of Hebron, where clashes were happening between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. My colleague chose to position himself with some other photographers at the scene. I chose to go in another direction.

When I am photographing, I keep moving until I get a certain, very specific feeling that I am in the right place. Unfortunately, my colleague’s choice led to him getting shot at the same moment as the stone thrower. When I couldn’t find him, I phoned. I froze when someone else answered. I heard incorrectly, “he was shot in the heart, but he’ll be okay.” I panicked, but then I realized I had heard “heart” instead of “arm.” Fortunately, he healed quickly. It is important to trust your instincts. The tiniest event — a passing decision, a slight movement, releasing a camera shutter, or, just dumb luck — like a bullet, can have a momentous impact that ripples through time.


Childrens Award 1991 © Joanne Rathe Strohmeyer / Boston Globe

Joanne Rathe Strohmeyer

Unlike the violence I witnessed in 1986 on my first trip to South Africa, in 1990 there was a certain excitement in the air. Apartheid was losing its grip. ‘Whites Only’ signs had disappeared, and Nelson Mandela’s release was imminent. My challenge was to document the subtle changes that were taking place. Two weeks after blacks had been given the right to travel on buses previously reserved for whites, black and white South Africans waited for the same bus in downtown Johannesburg. Sometimes it is just the quiet photo that speaks volumes.


Kosovo: Photo Of The Year 1999. Ajmane Aliu, a mother of six children, is comforted by relatives and friends at the funeral of her husband, Ilmi Aliu. The man was a soldier with the ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army, fighting for independence from Serbia. He had been shot the previous day while on patrol. © Dayna Smith / Washington Post

Dayna Smith

TRIBE: People in my tribe are imagemakers. We tell stories through moments; sometimes good, often not. The woman in this photo is comforted by her tribe on a day of unbelievable sorrow. It is the funeral for her husband and father to her six children who was shot to death on his way to check on a bakery where he had worked, before the messiness of war intervened. Our tribes crossed paths that day. With simple eye contact she gave me permission to tell her story. Izbica, Kosovo, November 11, 1998


Susan Watts

I remember the first time I saw Gloria Colon. She was the walking dead, stumbling down the industrial, pocked sidewalks of Hunts Point on a sweltering summer afternoon in 1997. I was in the Bronx shooting a story for the Daily News (the newspaper where I still work today) about an outreach van providing clean needles and condoms to heroin-addicted prostitutes.

Gloria’s emaciated body was a wasteland. Her 10-bag-a-day habit had ravished her. The photographs of her life on the streets ran in an eight-page special report, “A Desperate Life,” published in 1997. Shortly afterwards, Gloria entered a long-term drug rehabilitation program where her miraculous recovery was documented in a follow-up special report, “A New Life,” published the following November.

When we met, way back on that July day, neither of us could have ever predicted the profound journey we would find ourselves on together; a journey that bonded us and lasted eighteen years until her death in 2015.


Copyright of each image belongs to the photographer. All rights reserved.

Concept by Yunghi Kim. Thanks to Jeffrey D. Smith, director of Contact Press Images for the edit. Yunghi Kim has been a photojournalist for 33 years, is a member of Contact Press Images and the founder of the Yunghi Grant in 2015. Follow Yunghi on Twitter: @Yunghi. Connect with Women Photojournalists 80’s and 90s on Facebook.