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From flower farms in Mexico to beehives in Arizona, photographers sought out fresh vantage points in 2022. Here are the highlights from North and Central America

Each year, the World Press Photo Contest chooses the most evocative photojournalism from news events large and small. This year’s juries reviewed the work of 3,752 photographers in 127 countries.

Last week, the contest announced regional winners from six areas of the world, with the four global winners to be revealed on April 20. The contest is run by the World Press Photo Foundation, an independent non-profit based in Amsterdam.

This year’s jury for North and Central America included Amber Bracken, a Globe and Mail contributor and two-time winner in the contest. Here, she offers an insider’s take on what made the top entries so compelling.

The Dying River

Winner, single image category

Jonas Kako, Germany, Panos Pictures

What the photos show: Near Wenden, Ariz., three beekeepers supply water to insects in a desert where the Colorado River’s decreasing flow – the result of drought and greater human demand for water – has left the local fauna parched. Heat and drought are hazardous to bee colonies, which have declined significantly across the United States.

Amber Bracken’s take: The impact of human activity on the planet is everywhere and, as we become accustomed to generational shifts, these effects are sometimes rendered invisible. How drought affects bees – and the crops they pollinate and that humans rely on – is not necessarily front of mind. It is a significant challenge to represent environmental changes in a photograph in a way that resonates without oversimplifying an issue. But this understated portrait of beekeepers in a sun-seared desert landscape invites us to contemplate what these changes actually mean.

Maria’s Journey

Winner, stories category

Carlos Barria, Argentina, Reuters

What the photos show: The photographer followed asylum seeker Maria Hernandez from San Pedro Sula, Honduras – where she worked on a banana plantation – to a tearful reunion with family in Los Angeles. Ms. Hernandez had tried once before, in 2017, to come to the United States with two daughters, then aged 3 and 8; border officials deported her but left the girls behind. This time, Ms. Hernandez has come through an asylum program. Finding a place to live in Los Angeles was difficult: She cried beside her friend Marta after viewing a potential apartment to rent.

Amber Bracken’s take: There are many migration narratives, but the jury responded to the nuance of this story that humanizes the trials, and the grief that often accompanies immigrants and refugees on their journey to assimilate in a new country. Too often we are confronted by homogenized representations of migrants en masse, or simplified narratives of triumph, but this individualized story was refreshing and challenging.

Beautiful Poison

Winner, long-term projects category

Cristopher Rogel Blanquet, Mexico,

W. Eugene Smith Grant/National System of Art Creators FONCA/Getty Images

What the photos show: Flowers are big business in Mexico’s Villa Guerrero: The church is full of plants grown in greenhouses that cover hundreds of hectares around here. But parents fear agrichemicals, many of which are banned in other countries, are to blame for the disabilities of their children. Eighteen-year-old Sebastian (top, right), embraced by his father at a family gathering and by his mother at home, has hydrocephalus, a harmful buildup of fluid within the brain. Carmelita (top, centre), 16, never leaves her bedroom because her encephalomalacia makes her too sensitive to light.

Amber Bracken’s take: Through tender portraits, lush flower-laden scenes and disturbing reportage, this story takes a deep dive into the surprisingly toxic world of Mexican flower farms. The photographer employs a compelling lyrical style that entices with beauty and cuts with hard truths about the human and environmental costs of the flower industry. In a consumer-driven market, this work underlines the intersecting responsibilities of governments and individual shoppers to insist on ethical farming and labour practices. Jury members were moved by the tension and expert storytelling of this dark fairytale.

The Voice of New York Is Drill

Winner, open format category

Ashley Pena, United States, for New York Magazine

What the photos show: Musicians (clockwise from top left) Kenzo B, Cash Cobain, Young Devyn, B-Lovee, 22Gz and 26AR are some of the New Yorkers making names for themselves in drill, a sub-genre related to trap music that originated in Chicago. Drill artists’ success has also made them targets for law enforcement; 22Gz was pulled from a concert lineup by the New York police, who said there might be a “higher risk of violence” if he performed.

Amber Bracken’s take: Like many subcultures, the drill scene has its own rich visual landscape. But this work resists gawking, instead taking an immersive dive into a world that is easily misunderstood by outsiders. Subdued blocks of colour and a quiet sense of autonomy thread together these conversational portraits, while a scrolling feature unfolds each person’s experiences. The jury appreciated the skillfully minimalist approach – there was just enough interaction to make readers witnesses to the stories of these young artists striving despite police scrutiny of their lyrics.

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