On February 14, the winners of the prestigious annual World Press Photo contest were announced in Amsterdam. John Stanmeyer from the U.S. received the prize for World Press Photo of the Year 2013 with his piece “Signal”.

On a dark african beach some people hold their phone in the air. The American photographer John Stameyer records on photo how “African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City at night raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. 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” (Source: World Press Photo).

The birth of the photo behind the scenes by the photographer himself, John Stanmeyer.

John Stanmeyer shares his thoughts on “Signal” with National Geographic. John was in the Red Sea area for a project with National Geographic related to our collective human migration out of Africa that began some 60,000 years ago.

While walking along the beach, he came upon a group of people at dusk, all standing at different spots along the shoreline holding up their phones, some talking on them, others waving them in the air or just standing motionless. Surprised by this unique gathering he asked his friend/translator what they were doing. He said there are people, mostly Somalis, who often come to this spot along the beach to try and do what is called “Catching”—to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia by using a Somali SIM card in their phones.

John had the feeling of witnessing to the innate desire we all have as humans to reconnect home. Astonished and fascinated the following few days he revisited this stretch of beach where each night there was a new gathering of men and women looking for signals.

Speaking to many of them, the stories were always the same: the desire to reconnect to family, asking for remittance or updates on emigration papers from family living in Europe. Not all attempts to catch the signal were fulfilled.  If their phone didn’t grab the signal, they returned another evening to try once more.

The meaning of the photo by the photographer himself, John Stanmeyer.

John Stanmeyer tells to National Geographic that he has been asked often what this photograph means to him. “Very simple — it felt as if I was photographing all of us — you, me, our brothers and sisters — all desperately trying to connect to our loved ones. In this tenuous period of human migration where despair and hope simultaneously intertwine, we seek to find comfort, a sense of balance, a desire to be home, reconnecting to something stable, reassuring. This photograph of Somalis trying to “catch” a signal is an image of all of us as we stand at the crossroads of humanity, where we must ask ourselves what is truly important, demanding our collective attention in a global society where the issues of migration, borders, war, poverty, technology and communication intersect.”

(Source: National Geographic)

 World Press Photo Exhibition

John Stanmeyer’s Signal and many other winning photographs can be seen at the World Press Photo Exhibition 2014. After 15 years, back again in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. From Friday 18 April 2014 – Sunday 22 June 2014.

More details about the World Press Photo Exhibition 2014.



Arianna Ardia-Wenink
Arianna studied Literature and Arts at the University of Amsterdam, where she specialised a.o. in "museology" and "organisation & marketing of blockbuster exhibitions". After working for 6 years as market researcher & marketing analyst at Zoom.nl, now she focuses her photography love and enthusiasm on the Haarlem Photo Club.

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