By Handan Kazanci
When photojournalist Damir Sagolj shot the winning image of this year’s Istanbul Photo Awards at a Bangladesh refugee camp, he knew it was special.
“This is one of those pictures that you know when you take it, it’s going to have a big impact,” Sagolj told Anadolu Agency at the opening event of the first exhibition for the 2018 Istanbul Photo Awards in Turkey’s largest city.
His striking shot of an 11-month-old dead Rohingya boy whose eyes were covered with leaves was chosen as the 2018 Photo of the Year. Titled “Child,” the photo was taken at a refugee camp in Bangladesh on Dec. 4, 2017.
“It is, unfortunately, one of those images that remains strong and grows stronger,” said the 47-year-old Reuters chief photojournalist based in China.
People in the refugee camps have struggled a lot and have survived ethnic cleansing as well as a very dangerous trip over the border to settle in the camps, he added.
Since August last year, more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their homeland amid a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar security forces, according to the Amnesty International.
“Unfortunately, the danger does not stop there,” he added: “This child died most probably from pneumonia.”
The main reason Sagolj, who has been covering the Rohingya crisis since 2012, was at the camp that day was actually to look for another camp for widows and orphans.
While their assistant was talking to the people in an effort to locate the camp, “I saw the mother and one of the relatives actually carrying this child in a blanket,” he said.
They put off the search to the next day to follow the family for the funeral preparations in their tent.
“The refugee camps, wherever you go, are full of tragedy,” he said.
“I met with this child’s mother while she was with another relative who was carrying the dead child from the clinic back to their tent where they were living, and this was inside the family tent as it is prepared for the funeral,” he added.
He remembers the custom where the aunt uncovered the blanket and placed the leaves on the child’s eyes. “I was not aware of it, so I was not expecting this to happen,''
“I was taking pictures of the whole scene, which was very sad. A lot of relatives in the tent were also crying,” he added.
“I actually got very emotional and excited because I knew it was going to be a very big picture,” he said. He was in the tent for around 45 minutes, taking a lot of frames.
“This picture has very strong elements with the green leaves covering the child’s face, not only the eyes, so it makes it as if he is almost anonymous, so he could be everybody’s child. It reaches people much easier,” he said.
On winning the Istanbul Photo Awards, Sagolj said: “Just like every award, it means a lot to recipients, to us.”
Awards push photojournalists to work more, he said: “Every award for us is another opportunity to work more on similar stories.”
“Now in its fourth year, the Istanbul Photo Awards is becoming more and more relevant in the industry,” he added.
Sagolj, whose career spans over two decades, has mainly covered conflicts around the world. But his home country, Bosnia, still has a big impact on him.
“I covered the end of the war as a journalist, and I did cover some of the brutality. The scale of what I have seen, what I have experienced in Bosnia, has never matched anything I have seen in my career. That left the biggest impact on me,” he said.
The exhibition at the Maksem Cumhuriyet Art Gallery, where all the winning photographs of the 2018 Istanbul Photo Awards are on display, will be open to visitors until May 15.
The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Turkish Airlines and Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) are the contest’s sponsors.