On 15 April 2021, the World Press Photo Foundation announced the results of the 64th annual Photo Contest and the 11th annual Digital Storytelling Contest. The jury of the 2021 Photo Contest selected Mads Nissen’s photograph The First Embrace as the World Press Photo of the Year, while Habibi by Antonio Faccilongo was chosen as the World Press Photo Story of the Year.

Pilar Olivares, photographer for Reuters and 2021 jury member, says of The First Embrace: “This extremely powerful image shows us how you can cure loneliness. How you can bring to most of the people some hope.”

Kevin WY Lee, photographer, creative director and 2021 jury member adds: “This iconic image of COVID-19 memorialises the most extraordinary moment of our lives, everywhere. I read vulnerability, loved ones, loss and separation, demise, but, importantly, also 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.”

Read the complete coverage of the World Press Photo 2021 Awards on Better Photography here.

“This year we wanted to try to find something that was digging deep. That was looking at the past, at the present, but somehow also at the future,” says NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, co-founder and director of photo.circle and 2021 Photo Contest Jury Chair about judging the World Press Photo Story of the Year.

Ahmed Najm, Managing Director of Metrography Agency and 2021 jury member, says about the story: “The photojournalistic perspective of the photographer, along with the uniqueness of the story, have created a masterpiece. This is a story of human struggle in the 21st century: a story about those unheard voices that can reach the world if we as a jury act as a medium. It shows another side of the long contemporary conflict between Israel and Palestine.”

The category winners include Argentina's Pablo Tosco, Yemen: Hunger, Another War Wound (Contemporary Issues - Singles); Russia's Alexey Vasilyev, Sakhawood (Contemporary Issues - Stories); United States' Ralph Pace, California Sea Lion Plays with Mask (Environment - Singles); Brazil's Lalo de Almeida, Pantanal Ablaze (Environment - Stories); Denmark's Mads Nissen, The First Embrace (General News - Singles); Russia's Valery Melnikov, Paradise Lost (General News - Stories); Italy's Antonio Faccilongo, Habibi (Long Term Projects); United States' Ami Vitale, Rescue of Giraffes from Flooding Island (Nature - Singles); The Netherlands' Jasper Doest, Pandemic Pigeons - A Love Story (Nature - Stories); Russia's Oleg Ponomarev, The Transition: Ignat (Portraits - Singles); Italy's Gabriele Galimberti, The 'Ameriguns' (Portraits - Stories); Australia's Adam Pretty, Log Pile Bouldering (Sports - Singles); Canada's Chris Donovan, Those Who Stay Will Be Champions (Sports - Stories); United States' Evelyn Hockstein, Emancipation Memorial Debate (Spot News - Singles), and Italy's Lorenzo Tugnoli, Port Explosion in Beirut (Spot News - Stories).

This year, the competition received 74,470 entries from 4315 photographers across the globe. The winners' list comprises 45 photographers from 28 countries, of which 35 are first-time winners.


MADS NISSEN'S THE FIRST EMBRACE | World Press Photo of the Year (2021), Winner - General News (Singles)


Above: Rosa Luzia Lunardi (85) is embraced by nurse Adriana Silva da Costa Souza, at Viva Bem care home, São Paulo, Brazil, on 5 August.

This was the first hug Rosa had received in five months. In March, care homes across the country had closed their doors to all visitors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing millions of Brazilians from visiting their elderly relatives. Carers were ordered to keep physical contact with the vulnerable to an absolute minimum. At Viva Bem, a simple invention, ‘The Hug Curtain', allowed people to hug each other once again.

The new coronavirus had first appeared in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019, and by January 2020 had begun to spread around the world. On 11 March, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. The disease—transmitted mainly via close contact, respiratory droplets, and aerosols—could be fatal, and people over the age of 70 were one of the groups considered most vulnerable to the disease.

Brazilian president, Jair 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. Brazil ended 2020 with one of the worst records globally in dealing with the virus, with some 7.7 million reported cases and 195,000 deaths.


ANTONIO FACCILONGO'S HABIBI | World Press Photo Story of the Year (2021), Winner - Long Term Projects


Above: Nael al-Barghouthi’s suit remains hanging in his bedroom in Kobar, near Ramallah, Palestine, on 17 August 2015. Al-Barghouthi’s wife, Iman Nafi, keeps all her husband’s clothes and belongings in place. Al-Barghouthi was arrested in 1978 after an anti-Israel commando operation. He was released in 2011, married Iman Nafi, but re-arrested in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He has spent more than 40 years in prison—the longest-serving Palestinian inmate in Israeli jails.


Above: (LEFT) Lydia Rimawi travels with her son Majd to visit her husband in prison, on 27 July 2015. She leaves home at 5 am and has to take three different buses and pass through a checkpoint to reach the prison. | (RIGHT) Amma Elian, whose husband has been serving a life sentence since 2003, sits with twins born following IVF, in Tulkarm, Palestine, on 25 January 2015.


Above: (CLOCKWISE) Majd Rimawi is pictured on a cell phone on his seventh birthday, on 4 August 2020. His father Abdul Karim Abdul Karim was arrested in 2001 and is serving a 25-year sentence. | A portrait of Mazen Rimawi, a former Palestinian political prisoner and uncle to Majd Rimawi, whose father is serving a 25-year sentence, on 22 December 2019. Majd was born in 2013, following IVF. | A baby born a few hours earlier lies inside an incubator at Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza, on 18 January 2015. | Wives, mothers, and children of Palestinian prisoners reach a checkpoint in Beit Seira, Palestine, on 26 November 2017. Many face long journeys in order to cross into Israel to visit their relatives in prison. Some have to travel on journeys lasting many hours to get to the prison for a 45-minute visit.


Above: Lydia Rimawi lies on her sofa in Beit Rima, near Ramallah, Palestine, on 20 December 2018. Her husband Abdul Karim Rimawi was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for involvement in the assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi. The couple have a son, Majd, who was born as a result of IVF in 2013. In 2014, Abdul Karim was fined around US$1,500 for smuggling his semen from prison, and deprived of family visits for two months.

Nearly 4,200 Palestinian security detainees are being held in Israeli prisons, according to a February 2021 report by human rights organisation B’Tselem. Some face sentences of 20 years or more. To visit a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail, visitors have to overcome a number of different limitations resulting from border laws, prison regulations, and restrictions set by the Israel Security Agency (ISA). Visitors are usually allowed to see prisoners only through a transparent partition, and talk to them via a telephone receiver. Conjugal visits are denied and physical contact is forbidden, except for children under the age of ten, who are allowed ten minutes at the end of each visit to embrace their fathers.

Since the early 2000s, long-term Palestinian detainees hoping to raise families have been smuggling semen out of prison, hidden in gifts to their children. Semen is secreted in a variety of ways, such as in pen tubes, plastic candy wrappers, and inside bars of chocolate. In February 2021, Middle East Monitor reported that the 96th Palestinian baby had been born using sperm smuggled from Israeli prison.

Habibi, which means ‘my love’ in Arabic, chronicles love stories set against the backdrop of one of the longest and most complicated conflicts in modern history. The photographer aims to show the impact of the conflict on Palestinian families, and the difficulties they face in preserving their reproductive rights and human dignity. The photographer chooses not to focus on war, military action, and weapons, but on people’s refusal to surrender to imprisonment, and on their courage and perseverance to survive in a conflict zone.




Above: A man and woman disagree on the removal of the Emancipation Memorial, in Lincoln Park, Washington DC, USA, on 25 June 2020.

The Emancipation Memorial shows Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand, with his other hand over the head of a Black man in a loincloth, kneeling at his feet. Critics argue that the statue is paternalistic, demeaning in its depiction of Black Americans, and that it doesn’t do justice to the role that Black people played in their own liberation. Those against removal say it is a positive depiction of people being freed from the shackles of slavery, and that removing such monuments can amount to an erasing of history.

The drive to remove the statue came amid a wave of calls to take down monuments of Confederate generals nationwide, a move largely welcomed by activists from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, who see Confederate and other such monuments as reminders of an oppressive history. They call for a more honest accounting of American history. Officials had erected barriers around the Emancipation Memorial in advance of demonstrations. Residents posted notes on the fence expressing their views, and on 25 June around 100 people gathered at the monument arguing about what it meant. In February 2021, congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton reintroduced a bill in the US Congress to have the statue removed and taken to a museum.




Above: Firefighters work to put out the fires that engulfed warehouses in Beirut, Lebanon, on 4 August 2020, after a massive explosion in the port. Up to ten firefighters died in the blast.


Above: (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) Abdullah Dalloul walks in the ruins of his former home on 14 August 2020, which was destroyed by the blast in the port of Beirut, Lebanon. Following the explosion, he and his family squatted in the damaged building with no water or electricity. | An injured man stands near the site of a massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, while firefighters work to put out the fires that engulfed the warehouses after the explosion, on 4 August 2020. | A woman is carried to safety on 4 August 2020, in the devastated Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, a historic, predominantly Christian quarter of the city with a high concentration of old buildings. On the first night after the explosion, many cars were unusable and roads were blocked by debris, so injured people had to walk or be moved on foot to safer areas of the city.

At around 6 pm on 4 August, a massive explosion, caused by more than 2,750 tonnes of high-density ammonium nitrate, shook Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The explosive compound was being stored in a warehouse in the port. Some 100,000 people lived within a kilometre of the warehouse. The explosion, which measured 3.3 on the Richter scale, damaged or destroyed around 6,000 buildings, killed at least 190 people, injured a further 6,000, and displaced as many as 300,000.

The ammonium nitrate came from a ship that had been impounded in 2012 for failing to pay docking fees and other charges, and apparently abandoned by its owner. Customs officials wrote to the Lebanese courts at least six times between 2014 and 2017, asking how to dispose of the explosive. In the meantime, it was stored in the warehouse in an inappropriate climate. It is not clear what detonated the explosion, but contamination by other substances, either while in transport or in storage, appear the most likely cause.

Many citizens saw the incident as symptomatic of the ongoing problems the country is facing, namely governmental failure, mishandling and corruption. In the days after the blast, tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of central Beirut, some clashing with security forces and taking over government buildings, in protest against a political system they saw as unwilling to fix the country’s problems.




Above: Georg climbs a log pile while training for bouldering, in Kochel am See, Bavaria, Germany, on 15 September 2020.

Bouldering entails climbing on small rock formations and boulders of usually no more than six meters in height, without ropes or harnesses. Historically, it began as a training activity for more ambitious climbing and mountaineering pursuits, but has evolved into a sport in its own right. Rock-climbing gyms and sports facilities in Munich were closed as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so athletes had become creative in their training methods.




Above: A basketball net supported by cinder blocks stands beside a street in Flint, on 25 February 2020. The board reads ‘FDT’, an acronym based on a popular anti-Donald Trump protest song.


Above: (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) Jaguars junior Dion Brown sits with his girlfriend Lakenya Thomas as they watch a junior varsity game in a nearly empty gym, on 24 February 2020. | Flint Jaguars team star Taevion Rushing jumps from one locker to another in the team locker room before the last regular-season game of his high school basketball career, on 24 February 2020. He aims to go on to play basketball at a junior college. | Jaguars player D'Angelo Mays plays with a basketball in his bedroom at home, on 27 February 2020.

The Flint Jaguars basketball team in Flint, Michigan, USA, embodies efforts to nurture stability, encourage mutual support and strengthen community spirit in a city struggling to survive. Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, is striving against outmigration caused by a precipitous decline in its motor industry, a health crisis brought about by the authorities switching water-supply sources without proper safeguards, and the systemic neglect of high-poverty, predominantly Black neighbourhoods.

Basketball is an integral part of Flint culture, and the city once produced dozens of big names at collegiate and professional levels. For decades, four high school teams battled as fierce rivals. Now there is only one high school in town. The Flint Jaguars were established in 2017, merging the teams of the last two schools that remained at the time.

In 2020, the team fought to turn around what had up until then been a nearly winless history. By March, they were prepared to head to the division finals with an 18-4 record, having won more games in 2020 than in the previous three years combined. Their playoff run ended prematurely when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the season. Nevertheless, the student-athletes had had a taste of collective success.


VALERY MELNIKOV'S PARADISE LOST | Winner - General News (Stories)


Above: A rocket remaining after the shelling of the city of Martuni (Khojavend), Nagorno-Karabakh, lies in a field, on 10 November, the day the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan came into effect.


Above: (LEFT) Abovyan Hasmik (69) cries at the door of her home in the village of Nerkin Sus, Nagorno-Karabakh, on 30 November. | (RIGHT) Azat Gevorkyan and his wife Anaik are pictured before leaving their home on 28 November 2020 in Lachin, Nagorno-Karabakh, the final district to be returned to Azerbaijani control following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.


Above: Areg sits outside a burning house in the village of Karegakh, Nagorno-Karabakh, on 25 November. Some village residents burned their houses before leaving areas that were to return to Azerbaijani control following the November peace agreement.

Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh resumed in September, after a lull of 30 years. When the Soviet Union was crumbling at the end of the 1980s, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, part of Azerbaijan, took advantage of the power vacuum and voted to join Armenia. Fighting intensified after the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991, and continued until a ceasefire in 1994. More than 20,000 people died and a million people, both Armenian and Azerbaijani, had to leave their homes. Victorious Armenians declared an independent state.

In the intervening 30 years, little has been done to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and there have been periodic military clashes between the two sides. A July 2020 border clash triggered massive protests in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, with thousands of demonstrators calling for the country to go to war with Armenia.

Renewed hostilities, which each side blames the other for starting, began on 27 September in what became known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Conflict continued until 9 November, the worst fighting the area had seen since the 1990s. In a settlement brokered by Russia, Azerbaijan regained possession of territory lost in the 1990s, but the regional capital, Stepanakert, was left under Armenian control. Although fighting is over, reconciliation will prove difficult both to Armenians who feel they have lost their homeland and are now displaced, and to Azerbaijanis returning to a region ravaged by war.


Bleed image: Olog Ponomarev's The Transition: Ignat | Winner - Portraits (Singles) | Ignat, a transgender man, sits with his girlfriend Maria in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on 23 April 2020.

— All photographs courtesy of the World Press Photo Foundation