Copyright © 2021 Mehmet Aslan
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The man in the photo, Munzir al-Nazzar, lost his right leg in a bomb blast in war-torn Syria. The five-year-old boy in his arms, his son Mustafa, is a congenital quadruple amputee. His birth disorder, tetra-amelia, came as a result of the medications his mother took during pregnancy to combat the effects of nerve agents deployed against civilians.

The landscape behind them is drab and discouraging, a colorless smudge of concrete and mottled wood. A scrap of sunlight worms its way along the bottom of the frame. There’s a prison-yard vibe about the place. You feel relieved you’re not there.

Ah, but the smiles. Munzir and Mustafa’s faces radiate enough playful, unbridled affection to light up the whole scene. They’re as intensely connected as any two creatures can be, incandescent with love, heartache, hope, fear, joy, and mourning. Whatever they may have lost (and their losses are profound), these two people seem to want for nothing. They appear fragile but also unbreakable, as wispy as feather grass and as hard-barked as hickory. Their burdens are impossible to miss. So is their resilience.

If you could condense the whole journey of limb loss into a single frame, it might look something like this.

That’s a heck of a punch for one picture to pack, and it landed hard on the judging panel of the prestigious Siena International Photo Awards. Last week they named the image Photo of the Year, selecting it from among more than 10,000 entrants from all over the world. The winning lensman, Mehmet Aslan, encountered the al-Nazzar family in southern Turkey earlier this year. According to the Washington Post, the family was driven away from their hometown of Idlib, Syria three years ago, as that nation’s civil war dragged on toward its second decade. Since arriving in Turkey they’ve searched high and low for prosthetic limbs for young Mustafa, without success. “There isn’t a town where I haven’t asked about this,” Munzir told the Post. “But nothing has come of it.”

Aslan hopes his photograph will help to change that dynamic, not only for the al-Nazzar family but also for thousands of other families who lack access to even the most basic prosthetic care. In addition to its humanitarian impact, the photograph also holds the potential to deepen people’s understanding of limb difference and open their eyes to its complexities.

The photo is titled “Hardship of Life.” See it, and all the other winners, at the SIPA 2021 winners’ gallery.