The powerful stories behind the six best news photos of 2013

February 14

World Press Photo has announced the winners for its annual photo contest, one of the most anticipated photography competitions in the world. Here are the stories behind the overall photo of the year, as well as the winners in the five news categories. (They also award for other categories and for photo series, which you can browse here.)

(1) Overall photo of the year: John Stanmeyer in Djibouti


(John Stanmeyer/VII Photo Agency for National Geographic via AFP)

Migrants from elsewhere in Africa stand on a beach in Djibouti, the capital of the small East African country of the same name, holding their cellphones aloft to try to get a signal from one of the less-expensive carriers in neighboring Somalia. East African migrants often go through Djibouti to seek work, or a new life, in Europe or the Middle East.

The photo is a glimpse into the experiences of young migrant workers who move, or are compelled to move, from their homes in poor countries to middle-income or rich countries. That story is not a new one, but it's one the world is starting to pay more attention to, for example with the deaths of 360 African migrants in the Mediterranean this November. This photo communicates the experience of being adrift, as well as the yearning to connect with those left behind.

John Stanmeyer, a founding member of the always-excellent VII Photo Agency, took this for National Geographic. The photo is also the winner in the "contemporary issues" category.


(2) Spot news photo of the year: Philippe Lopez in the Philippines


(Philippe Lopez/AFP via EPA)

The Philippines was totally unprepared for Typhoon Haiyan, which killed perhaps 8,000 people in November and devastated swathes of the island-chain nation. The strength of the storm, as well as weak infrastructure and poor government planning, left 4 million Filipinos homeless.

Philippe Lopez's deeply affecting photo forces the viewer to imagine what it would be like to suddenly lose one's home and possessions and perhaps much more; the subjects' gaze across an unknown and devastated horizon hints at the challenge of moving forward after surviving something so difficult.


(3) General news photo of the year: Alessandro Penso in Bulgaria


(Alessandro Penso/OnOffPictures via EPA)

Like 2013's overall winner, this photo explores immigration and how it's reshaping our world. This small school in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia has been repurposed to house 800 Syrian refugees, including 390 children. That the Syrians themselves are absent from the frame feels appropriate – forgotten by a world either incapable of or unwilling to take care of them.

Syria's civil war has turned more than 2 million Syrians into refugees – that's a rate of about 3,000 a day – mostly pushing them into countries that are unprepared to handle them. Most do not make it beyond the Middle East. Some try to find a new life beyond, but many end up stuck in Bulgaria, which borders Turkey and is a sort of gateway – albeit a closed one – to Europe. A very poor country itself, with high unemployment and weak governance, Bulgaria struggles to provide them with basic services. The United States has promised to open its doors to Syrian refugees but only accepted 50 all of last year.


(4) Daily life photo of the year: Julius Schrank in Burma


(Julius Schrank/De Volkskrant via EPA)

This is the "daily life" category at its best: Kachin independence army fighters celebrate, as only outmatched rebels can, at the funeral of a fallen comrade. The Kachin war, between the Burmese government and "Kachin" ethnic minority rebels in the country's north, began in 1961 and is one of Asia's worst conflicts. A 1994 cease-fire broke in 2011; since then, the fighting has brought frequent and disturbing reports of human rights abuses.

Media do not make it into the Kachin conflict areas frequently – the Burmese government forbids it – so the fact that we're seeing this scene at all is significant. But there's also something powerful to glimpsing a light-hearted moment in a conflict that has been so deadly serious – and to see a human side of a story that we barely see at all.


(5) Observed portrait of the year: Markus Schreiber in South Africa


(Markus Schreiber/AP via EPA)

This photo is uncomplicated: It shows a woman who, after waiting to see former South African President Nelson Mandela lying in state, reacts as she is told that access has been closed and she will not be able to see the nation's hero. The legacy of Mandela, who died in December, is much bigger than just the admiration many South Africans feel for it. But that admiration is itself important, both in grand political terms and at a very human level, something this woman's moment of vulnerability communicates well.


(6) Posed portrait of the year: Brent Stirton in India


(Brent Stirton/Getty Images via EPA)

Five blind, albino Indian boys pose at the Vivekananda mission school for the blind in West Bengal, one of the very few schools for the blind in a county of 1.2 billion. India is trying to serve its population, but the country's slow rise has left many vulnerable communities and populations behind. Blind children are not in themselves a major feature of India's struggle to serve its millions of poor, but their helplessness and neglect tell a much bigger story.

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Max Fisher · February 14