News

Photographer wins national award for image of boy in war-torn country

Jacob Robinson

By Jacob Robinson, Simcoe Reformer

This photo of young  Khan Mohammed taken by Simcoe's Zachary Prong during a journey to Afghanistan in 2016, won the News Photographers Association of Canada's Photograph of the Year.
Photo provided by Zachary Prong

This photo of young Khan Mohammed taken by Simcoe's Zachary Prong during a journey to Afghanistan in 2016, won the News Photographers Association of Canada's Photograph of the Year. Photo provided by Zachary Prong

For someone that never planned on becoming a photojournalist, Zachary Prong has made quite an impression on the industry.

Prong, a 29-year-old Simcoe native, had felt destined to examine conflict in the Middle East and the people it affects. His vision, however, didn't include a camera.

Fate intervened when Prong – then studying at the University of Toronto - secured a scholarship in 2013 to study in both Israel and Palestine.

He purchased a camera prior to the trip.

“The research that I was doing was interesting and in-depth but it was also very academic and abstract,” Prong explained. “I found that photography was a bit more of a visual experience in the kind of way that helped relate some of the experiences that I saw on the ground that didn't necessarily come through in academic research.”

Prong also spent time in Afghanistan on the trip and would return in December of 2016, this time as a student at Loyalist College in Belleville.

“I always had the intention of going back to Afghanistan, but instead of doing just research I wanted to explore the country and the ongoing conflict there through photography and film,” he said.

It was in Kabul that Prong snapped a photo of a young boy at a refugee camp. The youngster, Khan Mohammed, and his family had recently fled the Heldmand Province after Mohammed's father became one of the thousands of civilians killed during fighting between the government and Taliban forces.

The photo depicts the boy, mostly covered in shadows as he looks towards the heavens. The background shows pants and a jacket hanging on a makeshift clothesline outside of a tiny brick structure.

The photo was recently awarded the News Photographers Association of Canada's Photograph of the Year for 2016, one of a handful of honours Prong has secured since his first journey overseas. His work has been featured in a number of publications throughout Canada and Egypt.

“The photograph can be an important first step in helping people to understand it's something that's going on in the world, but it was just a single photograph and what was lacking ... was the context that had given rise to the violence that boy had suffered from,” Prong explained.

“It can allow people to empathize with that boy, but that doesn't mean they have a better understanding of what's happened in Helmand Province over the years,” he said. “NATO countries did play a role and have been contributing to the violence in that part of the country, so I think it's important to explore that aspect of the story and that's something that I just started to delve into, but because my time was limited I wasn't really able to. So, I hope that photo is the starting point for a bigger project that's more in-depth.”

Canadian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan back in 2014, but conflict rages on.

Prong hopes his work, and the efforts of other photojournalists will help keep a focus on the country.

“I think it's important as Canadians that we not forget Afghanistan but we try to understand the impact that we've had on that country ... and not let it become a forgotten war,” he said.

Currently, Prong is planning a third trip overseas before he relocates to Winnipeg to finish a documentary entitled 'The Highway'. The film focuses on Joseph Miller, a talented musician who was one of the thousands of indigenous youth in Manitoba taken from their family at a young age and forced into group or foster homes. Miller is now living on the streets of the province's capital.

“The documentary is partly him recounting the events since that day he was taken and also following him and his life today and how it's affected him,” Prong explained.

A trailer for the film as well as Prong's other work can be found at zacharyprong.com.

jrobinson@postmedia.com