Haunting image of Kamloops residential school memorial named World Press Photo of the Year

A haunting image of red dresses hung on crosses along a roadside with a rainbow in the background, commemorating children who died at a residential school in British Columbia, won the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award Thursday.

The image was one of a series on the former Kamloops Indian Residential School shot by Edmonton photographer Amber Bracken for The New York Times.

“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.”

It was not the first recognition for Bracken’s work in the Amsterdam-based competition. She won first prize in the contest’s contemporary issues category in 2017 for images of protesters at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Her latest win came less than a week after Pope Francis made a historic apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools.

Making the invisible visible

In May 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation announced the discovery of 215 potential gravesites on the site of the former residential school near Kamloops, B.C.

It was the first of numerous, similar discoveries across the country.

Bracken said the crosses were placed up a steep hill along a busy road in Kamloops, B.C., by Willow George and Cee-Cee Camille. Red dresses symbolize the disproportionate violence faced by Indigenous women, while orange shirts acknowledge suffering caused to children by the residential school system.

“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.”

Bracken said one of the night watchmen in the community, Matt Casimir, guided her up the hill one evening so she could take the photograph.

“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.”

She described the award as “incredible.”

“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.

Other winners

Indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world featured in two other of the annual competition’s top prizes. The winners were chosen out of 64,823 photographs and open format entries by 4,066 photographers from 130 countries.

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

Australian photographer Matthew Abbott won the Photo Story of the Year prize for a series of images for National Geographic/Panos Pictures that document 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.

The Long-Term Project award went to Lalo de Almeida of Brazil for a series of photos for Folha de Sao Paulo/Panos Pictures called “Amazonian Dystopia” that charts the effects of the exploitation of the Amazon region, particularly on Indigenous communities forced to deal with environmental degradation.

In regional awards announced previously, Bram Janssen of The Associated Press won the Stories category in Asia with a series of photos from a Kabul cinema and AP photographer Dar Yasin earned an honorable mention for photos from Kashmir titled “Endless War.”

Yasin, together with Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in feature photography for their coverage of the war in Kashmir.

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