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Award-winning photos capture Dutch communities frozen in time

Leah Dolan, CNN

A fisherman’s wedding ring looped around a neckerchief for safekeeping. Buttons made of precious metals to serve as a form of life insurance for the wearer. Sculptural white hats made from fabric stretching up to 10 feet long.

These curious sartorial details, ubiquitous in Dutch clothing over 100 years ago, are alive and well in the traditional communities captured by 21-year-old Netherlands-based photographer Ezra Böhm.

On Tuesday, organizers of the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards revealed that Böhm’s series, titled “The Identity of Holland,” had earned him the title Student Photographer of the Year 2022. The annual competition, now in its 15th year, also named Australian Adam Ferguson as its Photographer of the Year, with other winners announced across the awards’ Professional, Student and Youth categories.

Böhm’s images appear like relics from the 19th century, with solemn — and often unsmiling — subjects dressed in traditional Dutch outfits. But these aren’t contrived costumes: The wearers are dedicated to preserving their cultural history by donning historic garments to attend church or go on choir outings.

“I started the series by emailing historical museums,” Böhm said over email. “After a while I came into contact with some people who are still wearing the costumes today. Once I had (established) contact with them, things went quickly. There are only a few people who wear traditional clothing and they often know each other.”

It took Böhm over a year to research, visit and document these close-knit communities. He often photographed multi-generational families in intimate settings — in front of a tiled hearth as a fire heated a copper kettle, or inside an antiquated drawing room as his subjects drank tea. Despite the absence of smiles, a tenderness emanates from the images.

“The goal was to celebrate and cherish the old culture of the Netherlands,” Böhm said. “But apart from all the beauty, these communities have something valuable in common that we often miss in modern society: togetherness, security and pride,

“Many people today have lost their cultural roots and can feel alienated in a society full of global citizens. By showing these communities to the world, I hope that people start to look at their own cultural roots again.”

Böhm, a student at the Nederlandse Academie voor Beeldcreatie in Eindhoven, will receive 30,000 euros’ ($33,000) worth of Sony photography equipment for his school.

Elsewhere in the competition, 18-year-old Vietnamese photographer Tri Nguyen won the awards’ Youth category for “Under The Moonlight,” a vibrant image of a boy basking in a ray of artificial light. Acclaimed Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, known for his mesmerizing bird’s-eye landscapes, meanwhile won the Outstanding Contribution to Photography award.

The competition’s top prize was awarded to 43-year-old Adam Ferguson, whose photo series “Migrantes” depicts the life of migrants in Mexico, near the US border. Shot in black and white, the project saw Ferguson subvert the typical narrative of documentary photography by involving his subjects in the creation of their own images — often letting them hit the shutter. The result is an affecting portrayal of the harrowing realities of migration.

“Winning the Photographer of the Year award gives this story another life,” Ferguson said in a statement. “It allows a new audience to connect with the important stories of the individuals who shared their story with me.”

Top image: An image from Ezra Böhm’s “The Identity of Holland” series.

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