As hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of DC during the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, Robert Meins found himself wrapped up in the moment. But like many people who turned out the day after the presidential inauguration, he wondered: Where do they go from here?
The more Meins thought about it, the more he knew he wanted to put his energy into doing something for the community. That inspired moment is what he says led him to organize an exhibition of the World Press Photo Contest winners, bringing some of the world’s best photojournalism to DC’s Dupont Underground for a month-long show. Meins, who is Dutch, had been involved in organizing a World Press Photo Exhibition while he was in university in the Netherlands. In all, the World Press Photo Exhibition is seen each year by 4 million people in 100 cities across the globe.
The DC version of the exhibit is coming back to Dupont Underground for its third year, opening Nov. 8 and running
through Dec. 8 in the old trolley station that has been converted into an arts space.
This year, Meins is doubly invested in the exhibit. Not only is he the organizer of the World Press Photo Exhibition in DC, but earlier this year, he also became the new executive director of Dupont Underground.
Meins, who also has a day job as a development economist, says the World Press Photo Exhibition falls in line with his goal of having Dupont Underground serve as an outlet to bring people together and raise awareness of both local and global issues. He is a firm believer that an image and the story behind it holds the power to create perspective and spark important dialogues.
We had a chance recently to talk to Meins about the upcoming show.
Kelsey Dobler: Why is it important for World Press Photo to recognize outstanding photojournalism each year?
Robert Meins: Telling someone else’s story honestly and effectively is tremendously difficult. The images and stories that make up the exhibition accomplish that, often touching millions of people around the world and setting the stage for important debates. That vital role of photojournalists deserves to be recognized and celebrated. They are generally the first to redirect that attention back to the issues they cover, which reflects their dedication to what they do.
Dobler: What is the impact of an exhibit like this?
Meins: Every year we leave a comment book near the entrance. The single word that is found in almost every entry is “powerful”. The exhibition makes people aware of issues they never knew were happening, it humanizes complex issues and inspires people to learn more. Every year we work with leading think-tanks, universities, embassies, media and civil society organizations to take that wish to learn more and to connect visitors with the leading organization working on the issues behind the images.
Dobler: There’s some great work in this year’s exhibit. Is there any particular piece in the show that is going to be the one that everyone talks about? And why?
Meins: The exhibition covers a range of categories from nature and sport to contemporary issues, so it is difficult to compare. That said, every year there is one image that captures a pivotal moment or discussion. This year that issue is clearly Latin-American migration to the US and US border policy. The jury gave four awards to stories examining these issues, including the Photo of the Year. Almost everyone will have seen John Moore’s image of a young girl crying at the border as her mother is taken into custody for crossing the border illegally. It is impossible to see an image of that kind and not understand the human impact of political choices.
Our long-time partner the Inter-American Dialogue will host a discussion on this topic specifically, we are also working with Rotaract and other organizations to screen award-winning videos and host events exploring different perspectives on the issue.
Dobler: What, if anything, will set this year’s exhibit apart from past years?
Meins: What sets this year apart this year may not be something in the exhibition itself, but the sense that there is an increasing tide of polarization globally. The wish to do something that brings people together was a driving force behind bringing the exhibition to DC in 2017 and seems even more relevant today. The exhibition is one small way to remind visitors of the range of stories taking place in our community, in the country and around the world.
Dobler: Environment has a big impact on how the audience “sees” a work. How do you think being in Dupont Underground with its graffiti-covered walls and unique space as an old trolley station affect the viewer experience?
Meins: Dupont Circle is one of the busiest, liveliest areas in the city. When you walk down the stairs into the Underground it is as though you are suddenly disconnected from that
entirely. The space is a long, echo-filled, concrete tunnel. It is raw, gritty and because of the curvature, you aren’t quite sure where it ends. DU certainly isn’t a traditional museum or exhibition space. It doesn’t cater to a specific audience or exude a sense that you need to have a certain level of knowledge to enter, it levels the playing field. You can come as you are, take away from it what you will, and come back as often as you like.
Dobler: Last year, free audio guides were provided that gave background information from the photographers who took the images. When should a photograph be explained and when should it speak for itself?
Meins: We’ve had a great deal of debate about that. The vast majority of visitors loved the audio-guides but used them only for the first third of the exhibition. The images do speak for themselves and I think there is something more intimate about taking in an image directly.
That said, the context photographers provide through the placards is of tremendous importance. Some of what I would consider the most powerful WPP winners have actually had a very strong interplay between the image and the context. The image sometimes suggests one thing depending on the personal background of the viewer and the context will be entirely different. That confrontation with a different perspective reminds us that there is a lot more behind a story than our own narrow view.
Dobler: Do you consider the type of photos being shown at the World Press Photo Exhibit as “art” or as “journalism”?
Meins: There are far wiser people than I who can answer that question. For me it’s about the story, it’s about humanizing a complex issue and showing us why we should care. That is the first step to addressing some of those issues; whether it is the opioid crisis, racism, violent conflict, climate change or migration. The incredible photographers place the focus where it ought to be, on the issues, on the people, on the story.
Kelsey Dobler is a communications intern at Focus on the Story. She is a student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass, majoring in Media, Culture, and the Arts, with a concentration in Film. She is also currently a part of the Fall 2019 Semester Program at American University studying journalism.