Jodi Bieber's posed picture, which contrasts the woman's arresting beauty with the violence done to her after she fled an abusive marriage, was published on the cover of Time magazine on Aug. 1.
Bieber, 44, a winner of eight previous World Press Photo awards since 1998, is a freelance photojournalist affiliated with the Institute for Artist Management/Goodman Gallery. She has published two books on her native South Africa.
Jury members said the photo, though shocking, was chosen because it addresses violence against women with a dignified image. The woman, 18-year-old Bibi Aisha, was rescued by the U.S. military and now lives in America.
"This could become one of those pictures - and we have maybe just 10 in our lifetime - where if somebody says 'you know, that picture of a girl' - you know exactly which one they're talking about," said jury chairman David Burnett of Contact Press.
The picture also evokes the iconic 1984 National Geographic photograph of a beautiful young Afghan woman with a piercing gaze.
Time's publication of the picture provoked international debate over the ethics of publishing - or not publishing - such a disturbing image.
"It's a terrific picture, a different picture, a frightening picture," said Juror Vince Aletti, an American freelance critic. "It's so much about not just this particular woman, but the state of women in the world."
In a video commentary on Time's website, Bieber said, "It was more about capturing something about her - and that was the difficult part." She said she did not want to portray Aisha as a victim. "I thought, no, this woman is beautiful."
Aisha posed for the Time cover photo because she wanted readers to see the potential consequences of a Taliban resurgence, the magazine said when it was published.
Although established photo agencies and press bureaus won a fair share of honors for 2010, a trend toward freelancers and unaffiliated photographers continued to grow.
"Any photographer anywhere with a laptop and a camera is competing with every other photographer in the world," Burnett said. "A lot of the best work is done by photographers who went out and did it on their own. They didn't wait to be sent."
In addition, in a world mobile phones have cameras, he said it's inevitable that amateur photographers will be the only ones to record some events.
In acknowledgment of that, the jury gave special mention to a 12-picture series made by the miners trapped for 69 days some 700 meters (766 yards) underground in Chile's San Jose mine before they were rescued on Oct. 13.
"The whole point of a photo is that somebody had to see it and be there," Burnett said.
Getty Images and Panos each won in five categories, while Reuters had three and The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse each had two.
Daniel Morel won first place in the Spot News Stories category for his series on the Jan. 12 earthquake and its immediate aftermath. He also took second place in the Spot News Singles category for an image of a woman trapped under rubble being rescued.
Morel is also involved in a legal dispute over the republication of his photos by news outlets after he put them on a website. Someone else spotted them, claimed ownership, and they were used by AFP.
AP photographer Altaf Qadri won first prize in the People in the News category for a shot of mourners at the funeral of Feroz Ahmad, who was killed in September when Indian police opened fired on pro-independence demonstrators in Indian-administered Kashmir.
AP's Vincent Yu of Hong Kong took third place in the same category for a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un together in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Oct. 10.
In all, 56 photographers of 23 nationalities won prizes. They competed among a record pool of 108,059 photos by 5,847 photographers participating from 125 countries.
Bieber, the overall winner, also won first place in the portraits category for the same photo. She will receive a cash prize ofeuro10,000 ($13,500) in a ceremony later this year.