Striking image of Quebec wildfire fighter amid burnt landscape wins World Press Photo award

Standing on top of a massive boulder, a young forest firefighter surveys the damage wrought by Quebec’s worst wildfire season in recent history. Nothing but thinned-out, charred trees and a stark sky surround him. 

The black-and-white photograph, captured last summer by Charles-Frédérick Ouellet and titled A Day in the Life of a Quebec Fire Crew has just won the North and Central American Single Photograph award at the 2023 World Press Photo contest. 

Ouellet spent more than a day in the life of a fire crew. In fact, he was part of one as an auxiliary firefighter with the province’s wildfire prevention agency, the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU), last year.

The photographer and filmmaker from the borough of Chicoutimi in Quebec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region received auxiliary firefighter training for a documentary he was working on with fellow photographer, Nicolas Lévesque, in order to be able to document crews’ work on the ground. 

But when fires began to multiply in the spring, Ouellet and Lévesque decided to pitch in for the most gruelling parts of the season. In the ensuing months, more than 700 fires burned over 4.5 million hectares of Quebec forest.

“I’ve been working on [the subject of] wildfires for a while now, but this year obviously was quite a crazy year where everything was out of control,” Ouellet said in an interview. 

Being able to do the work itself became more than a way of gaining access and documenting wildfires and the people fighting them, he said.

“This immersive approach has always been part of my of my way of doing photography. I feel it’s sometimes more about understanding the people that you photograph, learning from them, and sometimes seeing from what they tell you about,” he said. 

The World Press winning photograph depicts firefighter Théo Dagnaud in a forest north of Lac Saint-Jean that had already burned on July 13, 2023. A small crew, including Ouellet, had been dispatched to make sure nothing was burning in the area anymore. 

“We were making sure that there was nothing left on the ground really because it was a reburn site and since this rock was there as an extraction point, it was a great site where we could overview the whole area,” Ouellet said. 

A reburn site, in wildfire fighting, is an area where fire has already swept through but which could still contain flammable materials that could reignite.

The photo is among 24 winning projects and six honourable mentions to be highlighted by the contest this year. The selected photographs will also be part of the annual World Press Photo exhibition, shown in 60 locations around the world, including Montreal.

Charles-Frédérick Ouellet, originally from Chicoutimi, Que., is the winner of the North and Central American Single Photograph at the 2023 World Press Photo contest. (Submitted by Charles-Frédérick Ouellet)

“The jury viewed this single as a potent symbol of the struggle against climate breakdown, serving as a metaphor for humanity’s collective arrogance. The image’s iconic composition — reminiscent of a monument — poetically embodies the grief and gravity of the environmental crisis,” the World Press’s Jury Report said.

Ouellet called the award a “huge honour, especially as a documentary photographer. It’s one of the highest rewards that you can get in the world of photojournalism.” 

Ouellet has also embedded with fishermen on the St. Lawrence River. In a years-long project that culminated in several exhibitions as well as a book called Le naufrage (the wreckin 2018, Ouellet captured not only the work’s arduousness and that of the people exercising it — but also the drama of the environment: the contrast of the horizon, the jagged rocks, the maritime birds passing through or stopping by.

Fishermen, Ouellet observed, “have a really visual language where when they speak. And it’s actually the same thing when you’re working with the wildfire fighters, like they understand so well the ecosystem and the environment.”

“There’s so much poetry in their way of talking about things,” he said.

The photographer is heading back to sea this year as part of a residency through the Canadian Forces Artists Program. Another project he is working on is a short film about “post-conflict memory” in Bosnia, where he has documented the aftermath of the war that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. 

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