ANN/JAKARTA POST – The ennual World Press Photo (WPP) exhibition in Jakarta’s Erasmus Huis cultural centre highlights various crises of our times in vivid colour. The row of crosses stretched out toward the distance at a field in Canada’s British Columbia province, as seen through the lens of Canadian photojournalist Amber Bracken.
Titled Kamloops Residential School, the wooden structures stand against a stormy sky, bare except for the cloth around the arms.
“(The) Red dresses hung on crosses along a roadside commemorate (Native American) children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, an institution created to assimilate Indigenous children, following the detection of as many as 215 unmarked graves,” noted the caption for the picture, which Bracken took for the New York Times on June 19, 2021.
“Residential schools began operating in the 19th Century as part of a policy of assimilating people from various Indigenous communities into Western, and predominantly Christian, culture. Upwards of 150,000 children passed through residential schools, and at least 4,100 students died as a result of mistreatment, neglect, disease or accident,” the caption stated.
The image managed to make an impact. Pope Francis apologised to Canada’s First Nations indigenous people for the Catholic Church’s role in running the residential schools, during his visit to the country last July.
Highlighting diversity The World Press Photo (WPP) named Kamloops Residential School as the Photo of the Year. WPP global jury chair Rena Effendi hailed the photo “because it summarises a global history of colonial oppression that must be addressed in order to tackle the challenges of the future”.
Kamloops Residential School’s stature has made the photo the centrepiece of the 65th WPP Photo exhibition at the Dutch Embassy’s Erasmus Huis cultural centre in Jakarta and other venues around the globe. On its website worldpressphoto.org, Bracken’s work and other photos that made up the WPP Contest regional winners from last year were “selected by an independent jury out of 64,823 entries by 4,066 photographers from 130 countries… down to 24 photographers from 23 countries”, including from Indonesia.
“The WPP is now more diverse since its founding in 1955. Back then, the winners were mostly white men, making the contest imbalanced,” said WPP exhibition curator Marika Cukrowski.
“But now the WPP is making the move to be more diverse by representing work from various groups, women and binary people. The competition also uses a regional model from Africa, Asia and Oceania, Europe, as well as the Americas.”
Indonesian photojournalist Abriansyah ‘Berto’ Liberto’s photo project Haze was one of the winning entries in the WPP’s Long-Term Projects for the Southeast Asia and Oceania region.
The Tribun newspaper photographer effectively uses black and white photography of the forest fires in Sumatra to simulate the effect of the flames’ stinging the eyes, as well as other effects, in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.
“The photos have been taken since 2015 in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir and Ogan Hilir districts near the provincial capital Palembang, as the two areas bore the brunt of the forest fires caused by flammable peatland. The palm oil plantations in both districts drained groundwater that would have been used to put out the fires,” said Berto, whose accolades included the 2015 Adinegoro Indonesian National Press Award and Photo of the Year Award at the Anugerah Pewarta Foto Indonesia.
“(Haze) presented an extensive look at one of Southeast Asia’s biggest and longest-running environmental problems, which has affected millions across the region. The photo project goes beyond raising awareness but also creates space for reflection,” said the jury of Berto’s work.
The photos vividly portray the struggles of people from various walks of life in dealing with the forest fires, from President Joko Widodo seeing the flames firsthand, to school children wearing masks to stave off the smoke. Berto masterfully uses black and white photography to further focus on the subject and its personal effects on him.
“The flames forced schools in Palembang to close, as smoke contains particles that are dangerous if inhaled through the lungs. This is dangerous for all of us, particularly schoolchildren like my kids, and reminds us that clean air is a human right.”
The WPP confirmed Berto’s concerns, citing a Harvard University study that “linked the 2015 haze to more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said that wildfires across Kalimantan and Sumatra in 2019 put nearly 10 million children at risk from air pollution”.
Yet the statistics meant little to some people.
“I might not face threats or harassment like other journalists,” said Berto, “but I did encounter skeptics who maintained the photos were hoaxes.”
Brazilian photojournalist Lalo de Almeida’s eye is just as deft, as shown in his long-term project Amazonian Dystopia, as epitomised by his aerial shot of the Belo Monte Dam in the Xingu River, Brazil. The gouged-out landscape similar to the Middle-Earth territory of Isengard from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings dominated the Folha de Sao Paulo/Panos Pictures photographer’s work, along with the adverse effects of the dam.
“More than 80 per cent of the (Xingu) river has been diverted from its natural course to build the hydroelectric (Belo Monte Dam) project. The drastic reduction in water flow has an adverse impact both on the [natural] environment and on the livelihoods of traditional communities living downstream of the dam,” noted the WPP on the work.
The image and those depicting open-pit gold mines, expanding cattle ranches and the poverty of the indigenous people due to the Amazon Basin’s deforestation and increasing industrialisation showed the region as the epicentre of climate change. Most of all, it showed how political interest exacerbates the crisis.
“Conservation regulation and enforcement have been eroded under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. The president encourages farming and mining in protected areas, arguing this will combat poverty,” noted the WPP.
“Bolsonaro frequently speaks out against environmental protection measures, and makes comments undermining Brazilian courts’ attempts to punish offenders. Environmentalists say that this is encouraging deforestation and creating a climate of impunity.”
Uncovering disinformation Erasmus Huis director Yolande Melsert said the photos show “the temperature of the world’s situation. It makes us think about our responsibility for this world, to care about nature and people”, she noted. Melsert added that the WPP exhibition would be held in tandem with the Jakarta International Photography Festival at South Jakarta’s Blok M district.
The Dutch Embassy’s Political Department head Maresa Oosterman agreed. “Press freedoms are integral to democracy, though they have been rolled back in at least 53 countries. But while misinformation and disinformation remain major threats to the free press, good photos can strike, inspire and connect with us to make a difference,” she asserted.