Tragic Photo Of Kamloops Residential School Memorial Wins World Press Photo of the Year, Canadian Photojournalist Amber Bracken

The prestigious World Press Photo of the Year prize went to a somber image of crimson gowns put on crosses along a roadside with a rainbow in the backdrop, honouring children who died at a residential school in British Columbia.

The photograph was part of a series by Edmonton photographer Amber Bracken for The New York Times about the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“It is a kind of image that sears itself into your memory. It inspires a kind of sensory reaction,” global jury chair Rena Effendi said in a statement about the image, titled Kamloops Residential School.

“I could almost hear the quietness in this photograph, a quiet moment of global reckoning for the history of colonization, not only in Canada but around the world.”

Bracken’s work has previously been recognized in the Amsterdam-based competition. For photos of protesters protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, she earned first place in the contest’s current concerns category in 2017.

Her victory came less than a week after Pope Francis issued a historic apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” injustices they endured in Catholic-run residential schools in Canada.

The Tk’emlps te Secwepemc Nation revealed in May 2021 that they had discovered 215 probable gravesites on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

It was the first of a slew of such comparable finds around the country.

Willow George and Cee-Cee Camille, according to Bracken, placed the crosses up a steep slope along a major route in Kamloops, B.C. The red gowns represent the disproportionate violence experienced by Indigenous women, while the orange shirts represent the misery caused by the residential school system to children.

“They did that to help make those children visible,” Bracken told CBC’s Daybreak South on Thursday. 

“I immediately responded to the visual symbolism they created in personifying the children with those tiny children’s clothes along the crosses.”

Matt Casimir, one of the community’s night watchmen, Bracken said, escorted her up the hill one evening so she could shoot the shot.

“It had been gloomy and raining … until the moment we climbed that little embankment. The evening light broke through the clouds and just lit everything up so perfectly and opened that beautiful rainbow over the valley. Matt pointed out the foot of the rainbow appeared to be resting in the place where the children’s graves had been discovered,” Bracken said.

“I honestly don’t feel like it was taken by a person. It isn’t a photograph that belongs to me, exactly. There were just too many hands in bringing it to be.”

“Incredible,” she said of the award.

“It’s just a huge honour to be able to represent a story like this and a community as amazing as this one,” she said.

Two additional top awards in the yearly competition highlighted indigenous peoples from throughout the world. 4,066 photographers from 130 countries selected the winners from 64,823 photos and open format entries.

“Together the global winners pay tribute to the past, while inhabiting the present and looking toward the future,” Effendi said.

For a series of images for National Geographic/Panos Pictures, Australian photographer Matthew Abbott won the Photo Story of the Year award for a series of images documenting how the Nawarddeken people of West Arnhem Land in northern Australia fight fire with fire by deliberately burning off undergrowth to remove fuel that could spark far larger wildfires.

Lalo de Almeida of Brazil won the Long-Term Project prize for his “Amazonian Dystopia” series of pictures for Folha de Sao Paulo/Panos Pictures, which depicts the impacts of Amazon extraction, notably on Indigenous populations forced to contend with environmental deterioration.

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