By Karon Liu
Ryerson graduate Finbarr O’Reilly, winner of the 2006 World Press Photo of the Year, spoke about his career — and his photo — in front of a Ryerson audience last week.
The photograph (pictured above right) was singled out from more than 83,000 entries from 4,400 photojournalists to win the award.
He spoke in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre Thursday about his winning photo and his experience working for Reuters in West and Central Africa.
A 20-foot image of a child’s emaciated fingers pressing against his mother’s mouth at a feeding station in Niger was projected on the screen as O’Reilly spoke.
O’Reilly, who completed the two-year graduate journalism program in 1997, flew in from his station in Dakar, Senegal, to speak. O’Reilly has only been a photojournalist for two years. His win was just the second time a Canadian has won the award in 50 years.
O’Reilly’s photo was chosen by a panel ofphoto editors from publications around the world, including National Geographic and The Associated Press.
He still remembers getting the call about his win last February in his New York office.
“I thought it was a friend who was joking around,” says O’Reilly. “But when they told me that I won I knew which shot it was. I sent in 12 but that was the strongest image.”
O’Reilly snapped the winning shot in the village of Tahoua, located in northwestern Niger during a severe drought and locust infestation in August 2005. He had food poisoning that morning and couldn’t travel far, so he went to a nearby feeding clinic.
When he sat down to rest, he saw the woman and child across from him. He didn’t have time to remove his long-distance lens, resulting in the extreme close-up of the photo.
World Press Photo jury chair James Colton says O’Reillly’s photo is hard to forget. “This picture has haunted me ever since I first saw it…” he says on the World Press website.
“It has stayed in my head, even after seeing all the thousands of others during the competition. This image has everything — beauty, horror and despair. It is simple, elegant and moving.”
O’Reilly backpacked through Africa for a year in 1994 and enrolled in Ryerson a year later before stints at The Globe and Mail and the National Post.
In 2001, O’Reilly joined Reuters in Senegal as a journalist, then later became a photojournalist simply because he didn’t have a photographer with him on assignment.
“My photos were getting published more often than the stuff that I wrote,” O’Reilly says. “Living and working in Africa is always hard to get (your work) into the (mainstream) media so World Press allows us to get it out.
“This is such a respected contest and when a Canadian does good, it’s not only good for the individual photographer but it causes a stir in the photo community,” says Lesley Sparks, coordinator of World Press Photo in Toronto. “It’s good because we never get much attention in Canada.” As the winner, O’Reilly also received a cash prize of 10,000 euros (approximately $14,000 Cdn) and a Canon EOS 1D Mark II camera (estimated price $4,499). He used the money to help out friends and gave away the camera — he already has two.
As for the mother and son in the photo, a German photojournalist found them a year later wandering the African desert with nomads wearing the same outfit in O’Reilly’s photo. The boy was still unable to walk or talk. The photojournalist sent O’Reilly a photograph of the mother and son holding up his photo.
O’Reilly has since traveled to Congo where military groups are battling for control of the country’s natural resources.
“The biggest worry is that Congo has anti-Western sentiments, and the pictures turned out bad, too,” O’Reilly says.
When he is on assignment, O’Reilly faces long days, scorching temperatures and, of course, the disappointment of not getting the right shots.
But he’s far from experiencing photographer’s burnout. “Ask me again in 10 or 20 years,” he jokes.
“It’s thrilling and amazing to witness these things. I’m 35 now but I feel like I’m just getting started and I never think I’ll get tired of it or think of doing something else. Whisky also helps.”
His photo is on display at the Allen Lambert Gallery in BCE Place until Oct. 22.
NOTE: Photograph needed for article