Interview with Maarten Koets

I recently interviewed the World Press Photo Deputy Managing Director Maarten Koets for IdeasMag. You can find a slightly extended version of that article below.

Introduce yourself and tell me about your role within the World Press Photo?

My name is Maarten Koets, I am the Deputy Managing Director of the World Press Photo. This means I am in charge of three departments: education, contest and exhibition, as well as guiding the formulation of the strategy of the organisation.

How do you manage your work over three departments? What does your typical workday look like?

It’s very mixed. I have a certain amount of control over my agenda and there are always some surprises. I would say, about 50% of my time is taken by the planned activities, such as meetings on a wide variety of topics, 30% is strategy planning and 40% (which makes more than 100% in total!) are things that happen in our operations and we need to respond to.

What are the key skills essential for your job?

Intrinsic interest in photography, combined with business, diplomatic and human relation skills.

Can you explain your interest in photography and your career path?

I grew up in an intellectual and liberal family. We moved around the world a lot, and photography was a tool of discovery. There were always newspapers and magazines like Time and National Geographic in our house, so I read a lot and I loved it.

I think, what really sparked my interest was the following accident: the Cold War was omnipresent in the media when I was growing up, and I was under impression that the Soviet Union was a horrible place with a constant rain and unhappy people. One day at the age of 13 or 14 I was reading the National Geographic and I saw an image of a young Soviet marine and his girlfriend walking through a park in Ukraine; the place was lit with the golden light of the setting sun, the grass was green, the couple was happy and beautiful… The picture didn’t fit any of my stereotypes about the Soviet Union and I remember staring at it and thinking: What’s wrong?!’ Of course, ultimately, I concluded that I was wrong, which was a fantastic moment of re-evaluating of what I thought I knew and it stayed with me forever and I had photography to thank for that.

I went to study Political Geography at university, intending to become a diplomat, but nearing the end of my studies, I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to repeat my youth with continuous moving from place to place because it doesn’t allow you to root.

I started my work at the World Press Photo by chance: it was one of those stories when you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone… I fell in love with the organisation because it related to my personal background, the love for photography and journalism and allowed me to travel, while residing in Holland.

What are the main processes that the organisation goes through over the course of a year?

You can divided the World Press Photo into two different types of activities: one relates to the contest and the exhibition, which follow a similar cycle every year, and the other one is the academy and educational activities that constantly change.

What is the role of the academy within the World Press Photo?

The Academy is a relatively new project within World Press Photo and it brings together all the activities that are not directly related to our annual contest. We see education as a discussion in which someone matures in their understanding, vision and skills. It is hugely important because it helps us promote understanding of our values and reasoning about journalism and its role in the society.

To date a lot of our educational activities have focused photojournalists in countries where the opportunities for training and personal development are less present. This is mostly in the majority or developing world. As an organization that has the word ‘world’ in its name, we feel responsible to reach out to communities with lesser photojournalistic training opportunities.

The Joop Swart master class is the flagship programme of the World Press Photo educational programme and a wonderful opportunity for photographers, who are already well on the way in their career, to take a step back and re-evaluate their goals. It provides a safe and conductive environment to see where you are and where you want to go next.

The World Press Photo exhibition tours around the world – what are the challenges of showing it in different regions?

In line with our ideological principles based on article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which promotes free flow of information, we have a strict rule about our exhibition content – it’s either everything or nothing. This leads to problems on regular basis, and we sometimes have to withdraw the whole show. The only exception is our policy on displaying the naked human body, so when it comes to what we define as ‘non-essential nudity’, we will cover it up if it’s deemed locally offensive.

How do you ensure that the World Press Photo contest remains the leading photojournalism competition for the industry?

Our credibility is hugely important and is built on a number of foundations: the aspiration to engage with the best professionals from around the world, as well as ensuring high quality standards of the outputs we produce. It is important for the photojournalism community that through the World Press Photo they can reach millions and, in case of the winner, hundreds of millions of people – we offer a great platform to get your story re-told.

© John Stanmeyer

© John Stanmeyer

What makes a World Press Photo winning image or story?

The criteria differ for each category – what makes a good portrait is different from what makes a good sports picture or nature story. For example, entering Nature category, having been somewhere for the first time or having photographed species that are nearly extinct can be an important aspect in consideration of the jury.

As for news and documentary stories, they either offer original content that adds something to our understanding of an issue or are presented in such a way that will make the viewer to re-engage with the story. Ideally, it’s both.

You should be an effective communicator to attract people’s attention. Lots of stories have been told many-many times, so finding your own angle and style that fits it is hugely important; it’s an artisanal aspect of photojournalism.

One of the traps that photographers fall into is that because they can enter 12 images into a story – they will. It’s a big seduction, which often doesn’t help you. Many stories are much better told with six or eight pictures, so be very critical and avoid repetition – if any of your pictures is not as strong as others, consider leaving it out. It’s a good practice not only when entering a competition, but for the day-to-day work of any photographer.

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About Tina Remiz

I am a documentary storyteller and visual artist of Latvian origin, currently based in the UK's capital.

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