A hug that gives positive energy

Mads Nissen, winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2021, talks about his work and his drive

After the announcement of the World Press Photo of the Year 2021, we displayed the winning photo from Mads Nissen prominently on the building of our head office in Amsterdam. At that occasion we talked with the Danish photographer about his work and his drive.

Mads, can you tell how you came to take this winning photo? What was the situation?

‘When I heard what was happening in Brazil because of COVID-19, I wanted to do something. And as a photographer, that means jumping on a plane with my camera. I went to São Paulo and took quite a few photos of the unfolding tragedies at the cementaries, hospitals and other situations where I felt the desperation and suffering of the people. But I had also heard about the so-called hugging curtains in the Viva Bem care home. I had been looking for something that would inspire hope and thought the hugging curtains sounded interesting.

‘The picture itself came about by pure accident. Rosa, the woman in the front, received her first hug in five months. The curtain took different shapes for each picture. And if you look closely, you see that in this photo, the curtain takes the shape of angel wings.’ 

What do you hope your photo conveys?

‘With great photography, like great literature, you need duality, a yin to a yan. With this picture I hope people will realise the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time it is a positive message. There is a study that says if you hug someone for just twenty seconds, you release all kinds of positive hormones. And that is healthy for you ánd the person you are hugging. When somebody sees my picture, I hope he thinks: when I get home, I’m gonna hug my wife, my kids, my mother, or even my colleague and let the positive feeling spread out.’

In an earlier interview, you said, you shouldn’t try too hard to take a photo. ‘It’s almost like seducing a girl in a bar. It's all about energy and intention.’

‘Creativity is different from many other things. Some things you can force yourself, like working out. But in creativity it is more important to go with the flow. If you focus on a goal like, I want to win a world press photo, your brain will try to analyse what others have done and try to recreate what has already been done. If you want to make something original, you need to let go a little. If you try too hard, you’ll never get the girl.’

You also said that trust is an important ingredient in your line of work. What do you mean by that?

‘The subjects I photograph need to trust me to tell their story. People who see the photo need to believe that as a photographer I’m emotionally connected, otherwise it will not be visible in the photo. In the world of today it is easy to get lost or seduced. Because the more successful you are, the more people want a bite of you. There might even be temptations. So having a platform of values and ethics helps me through those decisions that I need to take in a split second. My motivation is very much based on my values and that I want to make a positive change. That’s why I choose the stories that I do.’

World Press Photo of the Year 2021 - The First Embrace - Mads Nissen

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