Photo Gallery l Photos of John Stanmeyer
OTIS - About a year ago, Berkshire County resident and photographer John Stanmeyer stumbled upon a curious sight along a sandy shore, where Djibouti City meets the Red Sea along the Horn of Africa.
A year later, the image he subsequently captured, one that could easily have been missed, earned him the honor of World Press Photo of the Year 2013.
Last February, he was on assignment in the region for National Geographic to document a project called the Out of Eden Walk. Stanmeyer is working with journalist Paul Salopek, who, over the course of seven years, will literally follow the footsteps of mankind, from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego.
"I have a habit of that, whenever I arrive to a place I've never been, I go out and get lost," Stanmeyer told The Eagle on Monday.
After catching for a couple of hours a pickup soccer game on a beach, the day transitioned to dusk, then dark. Then, a new light emerged, not only from the full moon shining down, but from the silver-blue tones of cellular phones being thrust skyward.
"I stumbled into this group of people, men and women, all facing westward on the beach, holding their phone up. I asked the translator who was with me what they were doing," Stanmeyer said.
The translator explained that the people were Somalis living in Djibouti who come to that spot hoping to catch a particular cellular signal from neighboring Somalia, which would provide them an inexpensive opportunity to contact loved ones, to call home.
According to a press statement on the image, Djibouti is a common stop- off point for migrants in transit from such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, seeking a better life in Europe and the Middle East. "I stood there watching, then it hit me - oh my gosh - that it was so pertinent to the story that we're doing. It's the global modern day equivalent of humans' natural desire to connect to something stable, tangible that is home. I was absolutely gobsmacked by it all," said Stanmeyer.
He said he would return to the spot two or three more times within the period of the full moon, eventually introducing Salopek to the people. Some would spend up to 45 minutes attempting to make a call, amid the murmur of dialogues among the lucky few actually able to catch the coveted signal.
"I met one guy who was talking to his parents in Sweden," said Stanmeyer.
When the World Press Photo submission period came about, Stanmeyer said he entered on a whim his image of the silhouetted migrants with their mobile devices in the moonlight.
According to World Press Photo, the contest drew entries from professional press photographers, photojournalists and documentary photographers across the world. By the mid-January deadline, 98,671 images had been submitted by 5,754 photographers from 132 countries.
Even against powerful images of war and domestic tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing, Stanmeyer's image became the beacon among them, earning not only accolades as Photo of the Year, but also first prize in the "Contemporary Issues" category.
"It's a photo that is connected to so many other stories -- it opens up discussions about technology, globalization, migration, poverty, desperation, alienation, humanity," said Jillian Edelstein, contest jury member from the UK/South Africa region.
Susan Linfield, jury member from the United States said, "So many pictures of migrants show them as bedraggled and pathetic but this photo is not so much romantic, as dignified."
Stanmeyer said the concept of migrating for opportunities is timeless.
"It connects to anyone of us, even here in the Berkshires," he said. " For example, we could be out and about and suddenly find the need to call someone, to make a doctor's appointment, to check in at home. If we don't find a signal right then and there, we'll continue to drive to find a spot to make that call. That same search for connectivity is universal around the planet."
The photographer of the VII Photo Agency said he was honored to win the awards for the image created in a handheld stance, and said the long exposure period was worth it. But he said the photo is much more about the people involved in its making. "I think people were feeling what I felt when I was making the image, and I guess that means I did my job," said Stanmeyer.
According to "Lens," a New York Times blog for photography, video and visual journalism, there is some controversy regarding Stanmeyer's award, as jury chairman Gary Knight is also a founding member of the VII Photo Agency.
Knight said, according to the blog, that although he had asked to be removed from the final judging because of his friendship and professional relationship with Stanmeyer, the World Press rules did not allow for it, and maintained transparency according to jury protocol.