Felicia Webb, a United Kingdom freelancer associated with the Independent Photographers Group agency (IPG), is the winner of the 2004 NPPA-Nikon Documentary Sabbatical for her ongoing project "Fat Times in the USA." Bill Luster, administrator of the sabbatical for NPPA and Nikon, made the winner's announcement following the annual weekend judging in Washington, DC.
Webb is the first non-American to win the sabbatical, which is on the theme "The Changing Face Of America." In announcing Webb as the winner, Luster said, "her very focused proposal takes a hard look at obesity, an issue that is under intense study in the nation now by the medical community."
"The sabbatical, unlike most other photojournalism competitions, relies more on a well-thought-out proposal than a series of photographs. The proposal counts for about 80 percent of the judging, and the photographs let the judges know what stage the photographer is at in their career," Luster said. Judging was done at the National Geographic offices by photojournalists Sarah Leen and Chris Usher and National Geographic illustrations editor Kurt Mutchler.
The Sabbatical comes with a $15,000 stipend so that working photographers can afford to take time to work on their essay. Last year's winner was Jon Lowenstein, a former POY Magazine Photographer of the Year, for his essay "From Guerrero to Gringolandia and Back: Day Labor, Family, and the New Global Economy."
"I am so excited and very honored to win this award. I usually work on self-assigned projects (labors of love!) without any advance magazine backing so there is always an element of risk," Webb told News Photographer from London after learning she'd been selected. "Winning this award and not having the usual financial pressures or worries will make such a huge difference to me in continuing with this project." Webb has spent several years shooting essays on anorexia and bulimia.
"I really believe that obesity will become an increasingly significant issue -- globally -- in the next 20 years and am so pleased and grateful that the judges recognized its importance," Webb said. "In my work I really want to show how obesity needs to be treated as a medical rather than an aesthetic issue. Unbelievably, it will soon be the number one killer in the United States. It kills more people in the States every year than drugs, car accidents, shootings and AIDS combined! And the rest of the world is following in the footsteps of America, so we had all better wake up to this problem fast."
Luster said the judges discarded some entries immediately because of inadequate research, vague direction, or portfolio photographs that were poorly executed or edited. Spelling, grammatical errors in the presentation, and not fitting the theme eliminated more entries. The judges brought the selection down to twelve, and then after a break brought the group down to four. "The four finals included Matt Black, runner-up last year, Darcy Padilla, Felicia Webb, and Steve Liss, veteran TIME magazine freelancer," Luster said. "The judges decided to name Black and Padilla's entries finalists, with the winner coming from the Liss or Webb proposal."
Judges then took photographs from both entries and put them on a wall to compare. "The judges thought both projects lacked some aspect and they went back and forth, similar to last year when judges worked for two hours deciding between eventual-winner Lowenstein and Matt Black's portfolios," Luster said. Finally a vote was taken, but not until after judges made strong arguments in favor of each entry.
"They're both very good," Leen said, "but we feel that 'Fat Times in the USA' is more topical and better researched and planned." (Editor's note: Luster said the Liss entry is not described out of respect for the photographer and his research and because it can be entered again next year.) Usher and Mutchler agreed with Leen, and Webb's proposal was picked as this year's sabbatical winner.