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In the picture

Photojournalists brave war and crisis to tell their stories in the annual World Press Photo exhibition.  

A single photo can change the course of history. Napalm Girl, the iconic image by Nick Ut of a little girl running naked and screaming from her bombed-out village, won World Press Photo of the Year in 1973. It was so powerful in shifting public opinion against the Vietnam War that some commentators say it helped end the conflict. 

The events of the past year have shown that Australians aren’t as insulated from such news-making world affairs as we may once have thought. With hotter temperatures contributing to our catastrophic summer of bushfires, which was swiftly followed by a global pandemic, even the Lucky Country will bear the scars of 2020 for years to come. That reality lends new weight to this year’s World Press Photo exhibition, on display at the Library from 15 August to 18 October. 

The exhibition was launched in 1955 when a group of Dutch photographers organised an international competition to attract bigger audiences for their work. It’s now a not-for-profit foundation that celebrates the world’s best photojournalism. 

The World Press Photo’s signature event has been held at the Library for 20 years — its only Australian location this year — and is part of the Library’s commitment to shine a light on contemporary issues. 

This year’s contest honours three Australian photographers, and inevitably the bushfires are the subject for two of them. Matthew Abbott’s image for the New York Times of a kangaroo attempting to escape the flames, silhouetted against the ruins of a burning house near Lake Conjola, NSW, formed part of a portfolio that scooped the second prize in the Spot News (Stories) category. Another of Abbott’s unforgettable images shows an abandoned car, shining rivers of liquid aluminium running from its melted wheels (the caption notes that aluminium melts at 660.3°C). Sean Davey won second prize in the Contemporary Issues (Singles) category for his picture of children playing under eerie orange skies at a bushfire evacuation centre in Bega. In a strange foreshadowing of Covid-19, one wears a mask against the smoke. 

World Press Photo

Matthew Abbott, Australia’s Bushfire Crisis, Panos Pictures for The New York Times, Spot News, Stories, Second Prize
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Sean Davey, Bushfire Evacuation Center, for Agence France-Presse, Contemporary Issues, Singles, Second Prize
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Matthew Abbott, Australia’s Bushfire Crisis, Panos Pictures for The New York Times, Spot News, Stories, Second Prize
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Nikita Teryoshin, Nothing Personal — the Back Office of War, World Press Photo of the Year Nominee
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Frédéric Noy, Lake Victoria Dying, Panos Pictures, Environment, Singles, Third Prize
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Katie Orlinsky, The Carbon Threat, for National Geographic, Environment, Stories, Third Prize
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Though the pandemic has recently displaced climate crisis in the headlines, global heating has long been one of the exhibition’s subjects. Esther Horvath photographed polar bears pawing curiously at markers placed by scientists investigating the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice. Melting Siberian permafrost reveals vast and growing canyons that threaten the lifestyle and culture of the local Indigenous people in a portfolio story by Katie Orlinsky. Evaporating lakes destroy the livelihoods of those who live along their shores in both Iran and Uganda.  

Climate solutions are also in evidence: in a set of photos for National Geographic magazine, Luca Locatelli highlights innovations in the circular economy including a plant in Denmark that burns rubbish, producing enough energy to power 60,000 homes (its sloping, green roof also provides a running track and picnic area in summer and a ski slope in winter). 

Also ever-present — in the history of the exhibition as in the history of the world — is war. Nikita Teryoshin’s chilling image of a neatly suited businessman at an arms fair holding two anti-tank grenade launchers shows that for many, war is just another lucrative international industry that continues despite all the other crises that make news.  

But it’s the human cost of war, not the financial, that always touches the heart most deeply. Australian photographer Adam Ferguson’s prize-winning portfolio of liberated prisoners of the Islamic State, published in the New York Times Magazine, depicts in starkly lit black-and-white the psychological trauma of the former captives.  

The World Press Photo exhibition is a salient reminder that the events that make history are always happening around us. And perhaps one of these photos will end up changing how that history is written. 

Hannah James, writer and editor based in Sydney.

World Press Photo Exhibition 2020 is free in the Library’s galleries until 18 October 2020, presented in partnership with the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and generously supported by Canon Australia.