On June 19, 2021, Canadian photojournalist Amber Bracken took a photo of a memorial on Tk’emlups te Secwepemc land just outside Kamloops, B.C.: Red dresses hung on crosses as the evening sun broke through the rain. She was on assignment, following the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
That photo – taken by a stretch of Highway 5 between the powwow grounds and the site of the former residential school – has just been named the World Press Photo of the Year.
“It is a kind of image that sears itself into your memory, it inspires a kind of sensory reaction,” said global jury chair Rena Effendi, in a news release out Thursday. “I could almost hear the quietness in this photograph, a quiet moment of global reckoning for the history of colonization, not only in Canada but around the world.”
Bracken – who turned 38 last week while in Rome covering the Indigenous delegation to the Vatican – won a World Press Photo Award in 2017, but winning the top prize is “next level,” she says.
She also says she doesn’t feel like this picture belongs to her, but to the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc people. “There would be no picture there for me without the work that they had done.”
The Globe and Mail spoke with Bracken from Edmonton, where she lives.
What did you think when you found out?
I was really struck by the timing of it. Without getting too esoteric, it feels kind of appropriate. Because they called me when I was actually in Rome with the delegation talking to the Pope. So there was this synchronicity about the whole thing.
Can we talk about Rome for a moment? What was that like?
It was remarkable. It was absolutely an honour to be witness to that particular group of people. I know that feelings around the apology are complicated, but the people who took it upon themselves to travel that far and do that kind of work with as little certainty as they had, it was just a truly remarkable group.
Let’s talk about this photo. Can you tell me about the moment you were taking it?
I’d been there for a couple of days and it had been pretty gloomy the whole time, overcast and rainy. I wanted to get up on the highway to photograph those dresses. There’s a very steep embankment that kind of stacks up next to the highway, so it was difficult to get there. It wasn’t really made for people. And it was kind of my last chance to do it. One of the security guards from the Kamloops residential school offered to show me the way. I told him what I wanted to do and he came along to show me the path. I kept telling him I’ll be okay, you can go back, but he stayed with me the whole time. And just as we climbed up the hill to get out onto the highway, the sun kind of broke through the clouds. It was evening and it came through in that dramatic evening way that light will do and lit up the sky with that rainbow. The security guard was watching traffic for me so that we didn’t get wiped out by a car. And he noticed that one foot of the rainbow seemed to land in the place where the children’s graves had been discovered. It felt like a moment of serendipity that all of these things came together in just the right way to have this moment of light in the midst of all the gloominess.
When something like that happens, do you have a moment where you think: wow, this photo?
I have enough self-doubt that I’m never sure until I’m home and looking at it. I always doubt whether I’ve done it right. Absolutely I felt the magic of the moment coming together; that the sun would come out in just the right way and light the crosses in just that way. I knew it was good; I didn’t know yet if I captured it correctly.
The feelings must be so complicated. It’s such a terrible story. And then you have this beautiful photo that you made.
I see what you’re saying, because it feels weird for something that’s about such a sad and difficult reality to be aesthetically beautiful. But weirdly, that’s something I’m aiming for almost all of the time. Because, for better or worse, we care more about things that are beautiful. So even dark and difficult things, when they’re beautiful, we pay attention.
When I hear your name, the immediate thing that comes to mind about the year you’ve had is your arrest as you were covering the Wet’suwet’en protests. The charges were ultimately dropped, but is there any sort of lasting ordeal for you?
I’m mainly very frustrated at the state of press freedom in Canada. I think we have a lot of work to do. I feel motivated to continue to report on these issues. The more they don’t want me to report on them, the more I want to report on them.
You kept shooting photos as it was going down. How did you maintain your presence of mind?
Frankly, I don’t know that I did. It was scary. There’s this weird thing that happens when you’re photographing. There’s a certain amount of separation between you and the thing. There’s like a mental break, where you know that it’s happening but it doesn’t feel so much like it’s happening to you. In that particular moment, my body knew that it was happening to me. I remember having involuntary full-body shaking. My knees and all my joints were totally trembling. And I remember thinking I wasn’t sure if I was safe to move my hands because the other people I was photographing had their hands in the air. I didn’t want to trigger [the police] to do anything scary; I didn’t want them to pull the trigger because I moved the wrong way. I remember being just rooted in place and photographing, but slowly. I was not willing to turn my back on the door or really move positions. I look now at some of the pictures I did do in there, and I think I could have done better.
When something like that happens, does it become difficult to continue the work? How do you go back to it without it being triggering – or maintaining a sense of objectivity?
I think you still have to take each situation as a fresh situation. So even though I understand how that moment of arrest is connected to so many other things, I was back out there in February. It isn’t the same experience every time. Every day is a new day. Every chapter of this story is its own thing. So you have to be willing to look at it with fresh eyes, I suppose. And just try to respond to it as it is instead of getting ahead of yourself.
We all have cameras with us at all times now and can take as many photos as we like. Can you explain why it’s so important to have photojournalists like you doing this work professionally?
I think the more accessible photography is, the more we need conscious practitioners. We need people who are trained in visual journalism who can help cut through the noise of the absolute inundation of visual imagery that we have. There’s only so much that we can process and make sense of and it takes a very skilled practitioner to craft an image that captures the story in the right way.
It’s been a hard go for people in the media recently – particularly women, who have faced all kinds of harassment. Do you have any advice for other photographers out there, especially female or female-identifying photojournalists?
I don’t know if I have great advice about avoiding or dealing with harassment, but I would say that for myself at least, instead of getting upset when people underestimate me, I’ve used it to my advantage. For a long time, people assumed I was a university photographer or a pet photographer. They didn’t assume it was possible that I was doing the kind of work that I was doing. And I’ve been able to use that to my advantage. Because if they underestimate you, they don’t put their guards up either. So rather than letting that bother me or letting it wear me down or believing what they believed about me, I just said okay, and kept doing the work.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The World Press Photo Exhibition 2022 premieres in Amsterdam on April 15. A global tour will travel to 70 cities in 30 countries, including Montreal, Toronto and Chicoutimi.