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

A haunting image of red robes hanging from crosses along a road with a rainbow in the background, commemorating children who died at a boarding school in British Columbia, won the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year.

The image was part of a series about the former Kamloops Indian residential school taken by Edmonton photographer Amber Bracken for The New York Times.

“It’s kind of an image that burns itself into your memory. It inspires a kind of sensory response,” Global Jury President Rena Effendi said in a statement about the image, titled Kamloops Boarding School.

“I could almost hear the stillness in this photograph, a quiet moment of global consideration of the history of colonization, not just in Canada but around the world.”

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

His latest victory came less than a week after Pope Francis issued a historic apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic residential schools.

Make the invisible visible

In May 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation announced the discovery of 215 potential burial sites at the site of the former residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia.

It was the first of many similar finds across the country.

“So we started having, I guess, a personification of some of the kids who went to those schools and didn’t come home,” Bracken said in comments posted by contest organizers.

“There are also these little crosses on the side of the highway. And I knew right away that I wanted to photograph the line of these crosses with these little children’s clothes hanging on them to commemorate and honor these children and make them visible in a way that they haven’t had in a long time.”

Other winners

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

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

Australian photographer Matthew Abbott won the Photo Story of the Year award 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 the fire by deliberately burning undergrowth to remove fuel that could start much larger forest fires.

The Long-Term Project Award went to Lalo de Almeida from Brazil for a photo series for Folha de Sao Paulo/Panos Pictures titled “Amazonian Dystopia” which traces the effects of exploitation of the Amazon region, particularly on indigenous communities forced to cope with environmental degradation.

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

Yasin, along with Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Film Photography for their coverage of the war in Kashmir.