Strange things were afoot in 2020. Horses roamed hospitals in France. Ewoks emerged from the forested swamps of northern Russia. The global pandemic donated billions of face masks and protective gloves to marine life.
All this and more was recorded and submitted to the annual World Press Photo contest by 4,315 press photographers, photojournalists, and documentary photographers.
We get to see the 159 winning submissions in the travelling exhibit at the Canadian War Museum until August 15, 2021.
The advantage of seeing the pictures in person is that they are presented in large high-quality displays, with accompanying narratives. It’s a very immersive experience. You start feeling as if you are looking over the photographer’s shoulder. This effect is enhanced by the rules of the contest: the photos can’t be altered. So, no touch ups allowed. What they saw is what you get. Except that you can walk up to an inch of the person in the pic and see every detail of their experience.
The stories you read alongside the photos are equally powerful. Take this photo by Canadian winner Chris Donovan. Read the story and you’ll know why the judges included it in his 1st place win for Sport Stories.
Chris titled his photo story of the Flint Michigan Jaguars basketball team “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” They overcame every obstacle thrown at them, and then, just as they were about to claim their rightful success, COVID-19 shut them down. You can read their story at the exhibition.
Up in the Arctic Circle, Ewoks showed up as mythical creatures called dulganchas in a timeless legend from the Republic of Sakha, which is home to 958,528 people spread across 3,083,523 square kilometers. The dulganchas are part of a thriving Indigenous movie industry which serves to keep the culture and heritage of the Sakha people alive. The accompanying story tells you how you too can become a Sakha movie star—if you are Sakha, live where the latest film is being shot, love your culture, and want to be part of an extended artistic family. Money? They’ll get back to you on that. The twins featured in the photo are still working on a smile, maybe because they read the script—traditional Sakha children’s stories are not for the faint of heart. By the way, no Ewoks were harmed in obtaining the costumes.
And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was a big part of the news in 2020, so there are some grim photos. Disasters also occurred. People continued to hurt each other in wars and social unrest. This was news and had to be covered. The press photographer must be there in person, preferably as close to the main event as possible. We are fortunate to be able to look over the shoulders of these photographers without going through the rigor required to get the shot.
Dr. Stacey Barker, an art historian at the Canadian War Museum, noted the compatibility of the World Press Exhibit and the Museum in this regard.
The photo exhibit is surrounded by the Barney Danson Theatre’s permanent exhibit of art. They illustrate the human cost of conflict in wars past, just as some of the photos tell us that the cost continues to be paid today.
As we talked beside a photo of an exhausted man amid the devastation of the Beirut explosion, Dr. Barker pointed up to a figure of an army medic working in a desperate situation in the painting above us. You do what you can do. Must do, in the face of disaster.
The museum has woven the themes of personal cost, national identity, and international responsibility into its displays from the day they opened their doors. Nothing is sugar coated or glorified. It’s both a cautionary experience and a celebration of the best in us.
The man in Lebanon has come to the end of his endurance, and the press photographer must live with what is witnessed. But that instinct of hope they both share will continue. Our part is to be informed in the most credible way possible so when a plea for help comes, we can act with intelligence as well as emotion. Being able to linger over a life-sized photo, and absorb the desolation, is not an act of curiosity; it is an act of responsibility.
But survival can have a brighter side too. Did the pandemic lockdown cause you to do something you’d never normally think of doing? Like letting a couple pigeons move in? I confess, I did feed a chipmunk a couple times, but I draw the line at pigeons. Enter Ollie and Dollie. I doubt the Doest family had any idea of what they were in for.
And that’s the 2020 world as the news photographers saw it.
The 2021 World Press Photo exhibition is on display from July 23–August 15, 2021, at the Canadian War Museum’s Barney Danson Theatre. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, admission to World Press Photo 2021 requires the purchase of a timed ticket, which includes access to the whole Museum. There are no separate tickets for the exhibition. Visitors who want to see World Press Photo 2021 for free are encouraged to reserve a timed ticket for Thursday evenings from 5pm to 7pm when free admission applies to the entire Museum. You can pre-purchase tickets online at the museum’s website ($5-17 except Thursday evenings).