Portuguese imagemaker Edgar Martins has been named Photographer of the Year at the 2023 Sony World Photography Awards. He earned the prestigious title with his portraiture series called Our War, which pays homage to his friend Anton Hammerl, a photojournalist who was killed in 2011 during the Libyan Civil War.
The series came about after Martins “covertly” travelled to Libya to trace the footsteps of his deceased friend. However, his investigation was met with countless obstacles, prompting him to reconsider how he could tell a person’s story “when there is no witness, no testimony, no evidence, no subject”.
The late photojournalist’s presence is symbolised in portraits featuring other people that Hammerl had either come across personally while he was alive, or who had otherwise been involved in the conflict, including freedom fighters and former militia. The people who appear in the work were invited to take part because they somehow reminded Martins of his late friend, whether in terms of appearance or character. The photographer described the win as an “emotional experience”, allowing him to honour his friend and “bring attention to the family’s plight to find his remains”.
“Photography is so often about memory and its nature. Long-term memory is about the conscious recollection of past events and our knowledge of them – be it through direct experience or mediated through the myriad of media we use,” says Mike Trow, who chaired this year’s award. “Our War by Edgar Martins has used memory and invention to give us a powerful, personal set of portraits that attempt to explain the last days of his friend, the photojournalist Anton Hammerl.
“His work highlights the lengths photographers will go to to tell a story and create meaning; each image giving a sense of the journey Anton took without ever being explicit about how his life ended. The entire jury this year was fulsome in their appreciation of the work and its narrative force.”
Elsewhere, Alessandro Cinque has been announced as the inaugural winner of the new Sustainability Prize, which has been created in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. The prize celebrates photography projects spotlighting individuals and organisations dedicated to environmental initiatives that align with the UN’s sustainable development goals. Cinque’s series documents the use of fog nets in Lima, which is facing chronic water shortages, to collect around 200 litres of water per day.
Other highlights include Kacper Kowalski’s aerial photographs over frozen bodies of water in Poland, which won the Landscape category, and Kechun Zhang’s still life project The Sky Garden, which shows large trees being air-lifted by cranes and ropes. Marisol Mendez and Federico Kaplan were awarded first place in the Environment category for their project Miruku, which focuses on the women of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu population and their role as community leaders and climate activists, while James Deavin received the Portfolio prize for his series shot in Saudi Arabia.
Hai Wang was named Youth Photographer of the Year, for his beautifully composed photograph of row upon row of brightly coloured chairs arranged at a school opening ceremony in China, while Long Jing was awarded the Student Photographer of the Year prize for his series Keep the Yunnan Opera, which documented the declining art of traditional Chinese opera.
The winning work has been gathered in an online gallery, and will be on display at the Sony World Photography Awards exhibition in London until May 1. The exhibition will also feature a body of work by last year’s Photographer of the Year, Adam Ferguson, as well as works by Rinko Kawauchi, the receipient of this year’s Outstanding Contribution to Photography award.
Sony World Photography Award 2023 winners:
Architecture and Design: Fan Li for his series Cement Factory
Creative: Lee-Ann Olwage for her series The Right to Play
Documentary: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham for his series The Women’s Peace Movement in Congo
Environment: Marisol Mendez and Federico Kaplan for their series Miruku
Landscape: Kacper Kowalski for his series Event Horizon
Portfolio: James Deavin for his submission Portfolio
Portraiture: Edgar Martins for his series Our War
Sport: Al Bello for his series Female Pro Baseball Player Succeeds in All Male League
Still Life: Kechun Zhang for his series The Sky Garden
Wildlife and nature: Corey Arnold for his series Cities Gone Wild
Open Photographer of the Year: Dinorah Graue Obscura for her image Mighty Pair
Student Photographer of the Year: Long Jing for his series Keep the Yunnan Opera
Youth Photographer of the Year: Hai Wang
Sustainability Prize: Alessandro Cinque
Outstanding Contribution to Photography: Rinko Kawauchi