An atmospheric image of a gay couple in Russia by Danish photographer Mads Nissen was crowned the World Press Photo of the Year 2014 on Thursday.

The intimate image of Jon and Alex is part of a larger project by Nissen called "Homophobia in Russia" that highlights how life is increasingly difficult for sexual minorities in Russia.

Nissen said he sees the image, shot in St. Petersburg, as "a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story" about two people in love but facing outside forces who want to deny them their feelings.

Its sensitivity also appeared intended to act as a counterpoint to gruesome photographs and video spread by terrorists that increasingly come to dominate the news.

"Today, terrorists use graphic images for propaganda. We have to respond with something more subtle, intense and thoughtful," World Press Photo jury member Alessia Glaviano said in a statement.

Contest organizers also criticized the large number of photos submitted for the prestigious awards that had been subjected to too much manipulation, saying they rejected 20 percent of images that reached the penultimate round of judging.

"It seems some photographers can't resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing either by removing small details to 'clean up' an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes a material change to the image," said World Press Photo managing director Lars Boering.

He said photojournalists around the world need to find "common ground" on acceptable standards for post-processing images.

While the winning image was of an intimate moment, the world's hotspots of unrest and despair also featured prominently in the prizes with images from the conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Gaza as well as the Ebola crisis in Africa.

Bao Tailiang of China's Chengdu Economic Daily won first prize in the Sports Singles category with a photo of Argentina star Lionel Messi gazing at the World Cup trophy after his team lost 1-0 to Germany in the final in Rio.

The contest drew 97,912 images from 5,692 photographers from 131 countries. Nissen wins a 10,000-euro ($11,330) cash prize.