World Press Photo of the Year 2022 Amber Bracken Montreal interview

An interview with Amber Bracken, winner of the 2022 World Press Photo of the Year

The Canadian photojournalist captured a striking image of red dresses on crosses on a Kamloops, B.C. highway following the tragic discovery of unmarked graves outside a former residential school.

Small red dresses hanging from a row of roadside wooden crosses, glowing in the dying sunlight. In the background, behind the shrubs and thistle of the dry B.C. interior, the sky is dark and overcast — yet somehow, a rainbow still appears. It’s a stunning but sombre scene.

It’s with this photo — taken following the tragic discovery of unmarked graves, containing 215 human remains, at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School — that Canadian photojournalist Amber Bracken won the World Press Photo of the Year award.

The World Press Photo Exposition is back in Montreal’s Marché Bonsecours this month, and Bracken visited Montreal to kick off the exposition last week. She stopped to chat with Cult MTL about this year’s 15th edition of the exhibit, winning the prestigious award and the state of photojournalism today.

“It took a little bit for it to sink in, honestly,” says Amber Bracken of the accolade. “Coming to terms with a title that’s as hyperbolic as World Press Photo of the Year takes a little bit of time to get your head around — so I think at first it feels kind of surreal, and almost too good to be true.”

Pretty soon after the initial shock was the weight of what it meant to win an award for a photo highlighting such a momentous issue, she says.

“It’s not just about a photo — so the sense of responsibility followed along pretty quick. When I found out, we were actually in Rome for the Indigenous delegation to talk to the Pope about exactly this issue, and about the ongoing harms of residential schools. There was a whole delegation from Canada that was there expressly to talk about how this is an ongoing harm, that it’s not ancient history.”

Amber Bracken World Press Photo of the Year 2022 Montreal
Amber Bracken

Bracken noted that Indigenous issues and worldviews are themes that reoccur throughout the exposition. Another theme is fire and fire management, another very timely topic around the globe as the climate changes. 

She mentioned the work of Matthew Abbott, who won this year’s World Press Photo Story of the Year award for his work photographing the ancient fire management practised by the Aboriginal population in Australia.

Another theme that will resonate with viewers is the pandemic and its many effects on society.

This year’s edition of the World Press Photo Exposition comes at a time when the field of journalism is facing many complex issues around funding, public trust, harassment and diversity and inclusion. Some of these topics are prominent in the news cycle right now, as women journalists and journalists of colour are reporting a rising occurrence of violence and threats and we witness the fallout of the firing of CTV’s national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme.

Something less publicly discussed is the numerous challenges photojournalists face, which overlap with the broader issues but are also unique to the medium. 

“Photojournalism specifically is even more impacted by budgets and layoffs. Basically, we’re the first ones to get laid off,” says Bracken. “And in Canada, the majority of professional photojournalists by a large margin are freelancers, which means that we’re out here doing a really difficult job with very little institutional support.”

Working as a freelancer, it suddenly becomes much less clear who is going to pay if your gear gets destroyed during coverage, or even who is going to bail you out when you get arrested on the job — which happened to Bracken last year as she was covering the RCMP raids of Gidimt’en Checkpoint in Wet’suwet’en Territory. 

“I think that’s a structural issue: we have failed as an industry to account for the true costs of journalism by kind of downloading a lot of these costs onto freelancers,” she says.

“At the same time as we’ve seen the majority of photojournalism go freelance, we have not seen, until very recently, corresponding increases in rates. So it’s just become a very financially and logistically untenable situation.” 

Photojournalists and their writing and TV-producing peers are all facing what she refers to as a “creep” of decreased access that kicked into overdrive during the pandemic. Many institutions seized the opportunity to restrict journalistic access, citing challenges brought on by COVID-19. This is a problem for the field as a whole, but photojournalists are particularly stuck when they’re denied access to what they need to cover.

“One of the things that is broadly challenging in journalism and specifically challenging in photojournalism is we’re having lots of conversations about misinformation and disinformation, arguments about fake news. The root of that, I feel, is a strong need to increase media literacy and visual media literacy, and I think it’s hard to do that if we’re not even having conversations about it.”

Until media literacy becomes embedded into the educational system, opportunities like this exhibit raise awareness among the general population about what journalism and photojournalism are, concretely, and why they are so important. 

“If we’re going to criticize the sausage, with the sausage being journalism, we need to know how the sausage is made. And I think a lot of people are criticizing without understanding the process. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all here for criticism. But I think productive criticism requires more knowledge than some people have,” says Bracken.

“I think the World Press Photo Exposition gives us an opportunity to have some of these conversations.” ■

The World Press Photo Exposition is on at Marché Bonsecours (325 de la Commune E.) through Oct. 2, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (till midnight Thu-Sat), $15/$12 students & seniors/free for kids under 12

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