It was 3:oo in the morning on Aug. 28, 2015, when Warren Richardson photographed a refugee handing his baby to another man as they crossed the barbed-wired border between Serbia and Hungary. The Australian photographer, who is based in Budapest, had been camping with a group of 200 refugees along the border. “We played cat and mouse with the police the whole night,” says the photographer, who couldn’t use a flash as it would have given away their location. “[The refugees] moved under the trees along the fence line. They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men.”
That black-and-white photograph — one that captures the desperate nature of the massive exodus of war refugees from Syria and its neighbors — has now been selected from among 82,951 images as the World Press Photo of the Year, photojournalism’s most significant award.
“I did a Magnum course with Ian Berry,” Richardson tells TIME, “and he told me: ‘All it takes is one picture and that’s it.’ And now I understand it.”
For the 47-year-old photographer, winning World Press Photo’s top prize is an overwhelming experience. “I never thought it would happen, not in a million years,” he says. It’s also an opportunity for the self-assigned photographer to continue his work across Europe from Belgium to Sweden where refugees and migrants seek better lives away from the conflicts that have ravaged their homelands. “I also hope to find the guy from my photo,” he says. “I’d love to get his perspective on this.”
For the judges, Richardson’s photograph was a natural choice. “Early on, we looked at this photo and we knew it was an important one,” Francis Kohn, photo director of Agence France-Presse and chair of this year’s general jury, said in a statement. “It had such power because of its simplicity, especially the symbolism of the barbed wire. We thought it had almost everything in there to give a strong visual of what’s happening with the refugees.”
“It’s a haunting image,” says Huang Wen, director of new media development at Xinhua News Agency and a member of this year’s jury. “You see the anxiousness and the tension in such a mood, which is pretty different from those in-your-face images. It’s subtle, and shows the emotion and the real feeling from the deep heart of a father just trying to hand over his baby to the world he was longing to be in. This is really something.”
Richardson’s photo is just one of the many diverse images that was rewarded by this year’s jury. World Press Photo’s director Lars Boering welcomed the varied selection of winners across eight categories, from sports to wildlife to portraits. “What I like is that we have the top names of the industry, from Daniel Berehulak to Sergey Ponomarev and Francesco Zizola,” he tells TIME. “But we also have discoveries; the overall winner is a discovery.”
The refugee and migrant crisis on Europe’s shores dominated this year’s awards, from Richardson’s winning image to Sergey Ponomarev’s report for the New York Times.
The jury also rewarded two Syrian photographers — Abd Doumany and Sameer Al-Doumy — for their work from inside “the most terrifying fighting going on right now,” says Boering. “At a time when we ask ourselves who is able to tell this story, it’s nice to see two guys from Syria being recognized for their work.”
In the Long-Term Project category, which rewards photographers working on a single issue over a minimum of three successive years, the jury awarded Mary Calvert’s documentation of sexual assault cases in the U.S. military. Nancy Borowick, who photographed both of her parents’ terminal cancers, received second prize, while David Guttenfelder’s insight into North Korean society received third prize.
This year’s contest also represents the contest’s emerging from the controversy that overshadowed last year’s awards, when 20% of entries that made it to the final round were disqualified for manipulation or excessive processing, and one photographer was found to have misled the jury in the description of his work. The debate that followed threatened World Press Photo’s reputation, but Boering says the organization has ultimately benefited from the resulting conversations with photographers, editors and other experts. “This was key for both sides to start to understand the other’s values,” he says. “We used that to built a good set of rules and procedures. By opening ourselves up, we improved ourselves.”
World Press Photo plans to release a report on this year’s process on Feb. 29. “That report needs to be a separate discussion,” says Boering. “Today, we want to celebrate the winners.”