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World Press 2014: Polar Homelands and Haystacks

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A building in Norilsk sits abandoned after a damaged pipe filled it water. Despite its prosperity, Norilsk faces a huge maintenance problem. The majority of buildings were constructed on pilings, which are now shifting due to melting permafrost.

Each year, an international panel of visual luminaries gathers at World Press Photo in Amsterdam to judge tens of thousands of images submitted by photojournalists from around the world. The results of this year’s contest were announced on February 14, with six awards going to photographers on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and a seventh for a project funded with the magazine’s support. Over the next few days, we will go behind the scenes of the winning shots with the photographers and their picture editors. Here Darren Smith and Elena Chernyshova discuss her 3rd prize daily life story on Norlisk, a Russian city located north of the Arctic Circle,  while Elizabeth Krist and Rena Effendi share their thoughts on Effendi’s 3rd prize Transylvania story, shot for the July 2013 issue of the magazine.

Note: Chernyshova’s story was a personal project that ran in the Nov. 2013 Russian edition of National Geographic. It also appeared in the Jan. 2014 French and Italian editions, and the Feb. 2014 Dutch and Mongolian editions.

Darren Smith, Deputy Editorial Director, International Editions

Elena Chernyshova worked for months documenting the life of the residents of Norilsk, a Russian city and former gulag built to serve a massive mine north of the Arctic Circle. Chernyshova is a rare photographer equally adept at capturing landscapes and intimate people pictures. Her access into the lives of the people there is extraordinary. As the viewers, we are able to feel the claustrophobia of being trapped in a small apartment for months on end while the pitch black Siberian winter rages, and the oppression of living in one of the most remote and polluted places in the world. Yet, what comes through most in Chernyshova’s photos is our shared humanity. Despite all the city’s drawbacks, the residents of Norilsk still long for the place, showing us the true power of home.

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Photograph by Elena Chernyshova, 3rd Place Story, Daily Life.

What I liked most about working on the Norilsk story was the large margin of time I had to work on the project. It is a personal project, thus I didn’t have specific deadline. I had a rough plan on the calendar but I could stay there as long as I needed to. I could observe, investigate, and search calmly without pressure until I was satisfied with the results. I did everything I could to avoid being too hasty or superficial. This was really important to me since this project’s original conception. I wanted to show personal human experiences of life above the polar circle in Norilsk, to stay for a while and feel their way of life as deeply as possible. I wanted to transmit Norilsk’s particularities and atmosphere in images.

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Photograph by Rena Effendi, 3rd Place Story, Observed Portraits. Published in July 2013.

Rena Effendi was the perfect photographer to bring out the idyllic beauty of the traditional hay-making culture in Transylvania. I’ve admired Rena’s work since first seeing it during an All Roads judging in 2008, so I was delighted a few years later when Kurt Mutchler, our photo director at the time, gave her this story. Rena captured not only the sun-drenched look of that world, but also the slightly romanticized emotions we all feel toward this threatened pastoral way of life. It’s funny to think back to that day almost six years ago, long before I knew that she and I would work together, when Rena came into my office with the other All Roads winners so I could explain to them our editorial process at National Geographic. Remembering the celebratory mood of that day we met, in light of how beautifully she handled this first assignment for us, is one more reason why it means so much to me that World Press has recognized Rena’s images from this story.

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Photograph by Rena Effendi, 3rd Place Story, Observed Portraits. Published in July 2013.

The Transylvania story was my first assignment for National Geographic magazine and when I received a phone call offering me this job, I got very excited. Kurt Mutchler asked me on the phone: “Can we talk you into doing a story for us?” I had never been to Transylvania, but I had documented agrarian cultures before in my own country of Azerbaijan. I think this was one of the reasons why Kurt and Elizabeth thought of me. Elizabeth was my first editor and she was great. I felt that we really spoke the same language. At some point, I called her from the field a week after I started. I was struggling and I asked her if I could look for other locations because I was not happy with my initial pictures. Elizabeth put me at ease. She was incredibly supportive and she instantly visualized the challenges I was facing there. She encouraged me to take initiative and follow my instinct. I think it is rare for magazine editors today to have this kind of flexibility and put so much trust in photographers. I was also fascinated with the editing at National Geographic—the rigorous process of building a compelling and thoughtful visual narrative in order to present it to the magazine. Elizabeth’s vision for the story coincided with mine. She was a great guide in that whole process and helped me build confidence all the way through.

Learn more about Elena Chernyshova and Rena Effendi‘s stories here on Proof.

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