Behind the frame

The story behind Yasuyoshi Chiba’s World Press Photo of the Year

Straight Voice, 19 June 2019. © Yasuyoshi Chiba, Agence France-Presse.

Chiba’s image of a young man reciting poetry in the wake of the brutal Khartoum massacre captures the hope and resilience of protesters in Sudan

Ever since protests to end the corrupt rule of president Omar al-Bashir began in December 2018, Sudan has remained in the midst of a political crisis. The president’s 30-year-rule ended in a military coup in April 2019, and a transitional military government was established. But the pro-democracy movement continued to protest, calling for power to be handed to civilian groups. This led to a tussle for power, more mass protests, and the brutal Khartoum massacre of 03 June 2019, when the military opened fire on more than 1,000 peaceful protesters in the country’s capital. 

Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP’s Chief Photographer for East Africa, arrived in the wake of the massacre. The authorities sought to defuse further protests by imposing electricity blackouts and shutting down the internet, which made it impossible for Chiba to track down and photograph the protesters. Many demonstrators feared to leave their homes following the massacre, and those who did organised meetings via text message and word-of-mouth. “There was nobody on the streets, only security forces. We were roaming the city every night,” says Chiba, who was in Sudan for a total of 10 days, “this was the only protest we managed to find”.

On 19 June, Chiba learned that there would be a meeting organised by the pro-democracy movement in one of the city’s residential areas. “When we arrived it was completely blacked out. There was no light, no electricity. People were using cars to light up the streets,” Chiba describes. “They were collecting rocks and stones to create a barricade. It was a tense atmosphere.”

Without a flashlight, it was difficult for Chiba to navigate the streets, but eventually, he saw a crowd gathering at a corner. There, positioned in a large circle, were people of all ages, surrounding a young man in the centre. Illuminated only by the torches of mobile phones, the man was reciting poetry, while demonstrators chanted slogans calling for civilian rule. 

“When my colleague explained that they were reciting poems, it surprised me,” says Chiba. “These people were using poetry, their cultural background, as a form of protest. It was beautiful”.

The image is the winner of this year’s World Press Photo of the Year, an annual award that highlights some of the most important stories in photojournalism. Within the wider narrative of ongoing violence, corruption, and bloodshed, Chiba’s image captures a moment of resilience and hope. “I felt their undefeated solidarity like burning embers that remain to flare up again,” he says.

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