Traces

by World Press Photo

In 2007, photographer Stanley Greene was in Chad to make a story about the crisis in Darfur, western Sudan, seen through the eyes of the victims.

In a refugee camp, he heard and photographed the story of a survivor who had witnessed the rape of his wife and the total destruction of his village in 2003. The result is one of the most chilling pictures ever made of the conflict, which had flared up in 2003 when rebels in Darfur took up arms against the government in Khartoum, with civilians caught between the fighting parties.

Crime scene

Greene’s photo depicts a crime scene, but without blood, without bodies, without destruction. It shows a dusty piece of ground with shoe imprints and traces of an abstract drawing made with a stick in the sand. Unable to express himself and without any other means, the man from Dafur had resorted to the most basic form of communication to illustrate what had happened to him and his family. In an interview with World Press Photo, after the photo was awarded, Greene explained how he always tries to photograph a situation that goes underneath your skin, which asks questions rather than answers them, which is implicit rather than explicit. His story about the war in Chechnya, which was awarded in 2004, does contain more graphic pictures, but his photos of traces, outlines, and stains tell the story equally evocative.

In the same interview, Stanley Greene also referred to Jean Revillard’s winning photos of makeshift shelters built by migrants in the woods around Calais, while waiting for a chance to stow away on a train or truck to the UK. Looking at the structures, you can feel their presence without actually seeing them, it is a like a trace, Revillard himself explained.

Traces of crime, conflict or disaster can be found on photos throughout the World Press Photo collection. In 2002, Larry Towell photographed the stained walls of houses in Jenin Refugee Camp directly after an invasion by the Israeli defense force. Shortly before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center, David Butow photographed a section of Wall Street covered in painted construction markings referring to the rebuilding process following the attack. And Yonathan Weitzmann captured the dress of an African girl hanging on a barbed-wire fence at the Israeli-Egyptian border. The girl was one of the growing number of migrants who passed illegally into Israel in 2007.

Missing

The search for missing persons and the identification of bodies found in mass graves led Paul Lowe back to Bosnia in 2000 to photograph the investigations. His winning picture shows clothes from an exhumed grave, laid out in a village where people were killed during a Serb raid in 1992. Comparably, David I. Gross went to Kosovo in 2002 to document the fate of the missing in relation to that former conflict. Most recently, Fred Ramos created a powerful document for the many missing persons and unsolved murders in his home country of El Salvador. In an almost forensic manner, he photographed the stained clothes of murder victims, which often provide the only clue to a positive identification.

Earthquakes and other forces of nature also leave deep scars, as Tom Stoddart witnessed in India in 2001 and Dean Sewell saw in Indonesia after the tsunami of 2004. Family pictures on a heavily cracked wall or covered in debris are often all that is left of better times. In Japan, David Guttenfelder photographed the signs of a hasty departure when he visited the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the nuclear meltdown following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami: an unmade bed, schoolbags in cubbyholes of disarrayed classrooms, and footsteps imprinted in the drying mud left by the tsunami.

Hazardous waste

‘Toxic beauty’ is the apt title Kacper Kowalski gave to his 2014 winning story. From his plane, he photographed the traces of heavy industry left in the landscape, showing irreversible damage disguised in striking shapes and colors. Just as toxic are the brightly colored geometric shapes that earned Fred Ward his award in 1986. These ostensibly harmless pictures represent one of Ward’s most difficult assignments. Commissioned by National Geographic to make a story about the threats of hazardous waste, Ward was subjected to some very dangerous substances. When Benjamin Lowy was commissioned to photograph the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he pointedly chose a different approach: instead of doing a classic reportage, he photographed the pools of crude oil floating on the water. By making something beautiful out of something horrible, Lowy created ambiguous pictures that invited the viewer to contemplate the environmental and economic disaster.

Stanley Greene

Stanley Greene

Stanley Greene

Jean Revillard

David Butow

Yonathan Weitzman

Larry Towell

Paul Lowe

David I. Gross

Fred Ramos

Tom Stoddart

Dean Sewell

David Guttenfelder

David Guttenfelder

Kacper Kowalski

Fred Ward

Benjamin Lowy