B.C. photographer wins prestigious award for climate photojournalism

B.C. photographer wins prestigious award for climate photojournalism

Jesse Winter’s photograph of Alaskan smoke jumper Carson Long working the front lines of a wildfire last summer near Vanderhoof, B.C., is so vivid, you can almost feel the heat of the flames.

It’s just one of the images from last year’s devastating wildfire season in British Columbia that earned the Vancouver-based freelance photographer the prestigious Edward Burtynsky Award for Climate Photojournalism from the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” said Winter. “I mean, even to be associated with Edward Burtynsky and his work is an incredible honour.”

The feeling appears to be mutual. In announcing the award, Burtynsky, the acclaimed Canadian photographer and filmmaker heaped praise on Winter for his ability to capture the awesome and awful power of wildfires.

“Jesse’s photos take us into the heart of the battle and show how small a force we are against such a major event,” said Burtynsky.

“It’s a perspective on climate that many people have not seen, showing the profound consequences for both the forest and for the human beings living in its shadow.”

five firefighters
A wildfire crew assigned to B.C.’s Scotch Creek wildfire in the summer of 2023. (© Jesse Winter)

Smoke jumpers are firefighters who parachute into remote places. Although Winter himself didn’t jump from the sky, he did put in a lot of groundwork to gain the trust of the crew. That, in turn, got him close-up access — “the perfect confluence of moments,” as he describes it — to get the shot.

“What you see in that image is Carson using a drip torch to actually set fire to the forest and help create an area of reduced fuel,” said Winter. “They’re not used to seeing journalists in these spaces. They’re not used to the idea that their work is public.”

Another of Winter’s award-winning pictures depicts a crew assigned to the Scotch Creek fire in a state of physical and emotional fatigue, something Winter said he saw a lot of last summer.

A man stands in a forest holding multiple cameras.
“It’s a grind making a living as a freelance photojournalist,” said Winter. “I’m incredibly grateful to the publications that support me in doing this work.” (Matt Law/Jesse Winter)

“That Fraser unit crew was on their fifth, or maybe sixth, deployment of the summer, which is pretty unheard of. And these are 14-day deployments, so they’re working sometimes 12-and-a-half hour days or longer, for 14 days straight,” he said.

“It shows that despite how dedicated they are, and how hard everyone in the wildfire service works … the length of the fire seasons that we’re seeing as climate change gets worse is really, really taxing our system.”

The third photo in the series shows a wildfire as it burned north from Washington state into B.C., backlighting the Canadian customs buildings at the Oroville-Osoyoos border crossing.  

Winter shot the frame at 3 a.m. from the summit of Anarchist Mountain on the opposite side of Osoyoos Lake. 

“I was staying at a hotel in Kamloops and at about 10 p.m. that night I saw breaking on Twitter that this fire from the U.S. came across the border and was racing toward Osoyoos. So I packed up all my stuff and drove for four hours,” he said. 

Plumes of smoke and pockets of flame dot the horizon, with orange reflections visible on water near some hills.
Jesse Winter captured this image of the Eagle Bluff wildfire, which crossed the border from Washington state and prompted evacuation orders in Osoyoos, B.C., on July 30, 2023. (Jesse Winter/Reuters)

“I think what I was hoping to show is that these issues are not domestic — these are global issues. They don’t respect international borders and we have to stop thinking about them as though they do.”

The Burtynsky award will be handed out in Toronto in June along with a $5,000 cheque, something Winter is also happy to receive. 

“It’s a grind making a living as a freelance photojournalist,” he said.

“Along with the Canadian Journalism Foundation, Burtynsky himself and the folks behind this award, I’m incredibly grateful to the publications that support me in doing this work.”

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