Coronavirus in Brazil: Picture of first hug in months wins World Press Photo

The First Embrace, Mads Nissen, Panos Pictures/Politiken
The First Embrace, Mads Nissen, Panos Pictures/Politiken

The prestigious World Press Photo award has been won by Danish photographer Mads Nissen for The First Embrace, a photograph encapsulating the  ‘vulnerability and loss’ suffered by many during the coronavirus pandemic, the jury for the Amsterdam-based award said.

Nissen, who won the award in 2015 for a photo of a gay couple in Russia, took the photograph in a care home for the elderly in São Paulo, Brazil in August last year. No visitors had been allowed since March and homes took to hanging up plastic ‘hugging curtains’ so residents could enjoy some close human contact.

The picture shows 85-year-old Rosa Luzia Lunardi being embraced for the first time in five months by nurse Adriana Silva da Costa Souza.

At the time the photograph was taken Brazil had already been hard hit by the virus. Some 13.5 million people have been infected and around 360,000 people have now died.

The photo is an indictment of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous handling of the pandemic as well, the photographer said.

‘Bolsonaro dismissed claims about the severity of the pandemic and the danger posed by the virus, undermined quarantine measures adopted at state level, and encouraged Brazilians to continue working to keep the economy afloat,’ NIssen said. ‘When I heard he was treating it like it was no more serious than a bout of flu I felt I had to do something.’

Nissen describes the moment as emotional and loving, showing that ‘people don’t need just medical care but love and compassion. A hug.’

This was echoed by jury member Kevin WY Lee who said he  saw ‘vulnerability, loved ones, loss and separation, demise but, importantly, survival, all rolled into one graphic image. If you look at the image long enough you’ll see wings: a symbol of flight and hope.’

 To convey hope was exactly what he was trying to do Nissen said. ‘As photographers we should not only picture problems but solutions as well.’

Second prize

The second prize in the general news category went to an altogether grimmer rendering of the coronavirus crisis. Indonesian photographer Joshua Irwandi photographed the corpse of a coronavirus victim in his country, wrapped in plastic and ready for burial but completely alone because relatives were not allowed to say their goodbyes.

The prize for best photo story went to Antonio Faccilongo for Habibi (my love in Arabic), a depiction of the life of Palestinian family caught in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. ‘This is a story of human struggle in the 21st century: a story about those unheard voices that can reach the world if we, the jury, act as a medium. It shows another side of the long contemporary conflict between Israel and Palestine,’ the jury said.

The World Press Photo exhibition traditionally starts its travels around the world at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam but this year the organisers have set up a digital festival. The organisers hope the exhibition will tour and are currently working on dates.

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