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Dual honorees: Stunning coverage of Belarus protests, and a Ganges River odyssey

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Much of the AP’s work across the world focuses on breaking news, like the gripping coverage of Belarus’ largest protests in decades, shaking the power of the man often styled as Europe’s last dictator.

And then there are times when journalists devote months to a single project close to their heart. Such was the case with Altaf Qadri’s unforgettable photo package that documented life along India’s eternal Ganges River.

This week, AP recognizes these two very different bodies of work for their distinctive, outstanding coverage, sharing Best of the Week honors.

An all-formats team in Minsk, Belarus, for the second consecutive week delivered exclusive coverage that called into question the government’s narrative of what was happening around the country’s disputed elections and the popular red-and-white revolt against Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.

Germany-based AP video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, a veteran of many conflicts, was covering a second night of chaotic street protests in Minsk after Lukashenko’s declared election win when he heard a commotion and turned his camera toward a man standing in the street with blood on his shirt.

A line of heavily armed police stood nearby. Chernov, who himself had spent part of the previous night in a hospital after being beaten by police, zoomed in on the scene and captured the moment that the man hunched over and collapsed to the ground.

The man’s identity at first was unknown, and it was unclear if he was the same person mentioned in a subsequent government statement that said a protester had died after an explosive he was holding accidentally went off in his hand.

With so many questions unanswered and the sensitivity of the video,Chernov and the AP teams in Belarus and Moscow spent several days trying to track down the man’s identity. Eventually,they located a grief-stricken woman,Elena German,who confirmed the AP video was of the death of her partner,Alexander Taraikovsky, an auto mechanic. She agreed to talk exclusively with the AP and then allowed AP to record his funeral. As the coffin was carried out,some among the 500 mourners dropped to one knee,weeping and exclaiming,“Long live Belarus!”

The story ran Saturday with text from reporter Yuras Karmanau and photos by Sergei Grits and Dmitri Lovetsky covering the funeral and memorial respectively. Non-subscribers in Belarus and elsewhere called the AP asking for us to license the footage of the fatal confrontation. Less than two days later, the government reversed course and said the man may have died from a rubber bullet and not from an explosive.

Meanwhile,the protests in Minsk and elsewhere in Belarus continued to grow and the AP team provided extensive coverage,often ahead of competitors. Despite rolling internet outages, Chernov and Moscow-based camera operator Dimitri Kozlov shot exclusive live footage of women holding flowers and photos of loved ones who had been detained and live coverage of a memorial for Taraikovsky in which thousands turned out at the spot where he died. On Saturday, the team also produced a powerful look at police brutality, interviewing detainees who had been beaten while in custody and showing their injuries as well as frightened relatives who had police storm their homes.

The AP team and other media faced constant police intimidation. In addition to the beating of Chernov on the night of the election,police broke part of Grits’ camera two days later and took his memory cards. Nevertheless,the AP’s text,photos and video flowed throughout the week and were widely used, with many customers crediting the AP for exclusive content.

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Indian Hindu pilgrims walk on a pontoon bridge before dawn at Sangam, the confluence of rivers Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati during Magh Mela, a festival that attracts millions of pilgrims every year, in Prayagraj, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Jan. 30, 2020. In the run-up to the bathing festivals, extra water is released upstream and tanneries are temporarily closed to temporarily clean up the waters of the Ganges. But pollution officials say that it is unsafe to bathe in the Ganges anywhere near Prayagraj. To Hindus, however, the river remains pure in a religious sense. – AP Photo / Altaf Qadri

In work of a different dimension entirely,New Delhi photographer Altaf Qadri spent many months tracing life along the 1,700-mile River Ganges,considered sacred by almost 1 billion Hindus in India.

The project began more than year ago,when Qadri’s editor solicited ideas for photo essays. At the top of Qadri’s list: a photo documentary that chronicled the various aspects of the Ganges. Starting with a treacherous two-day hike to glaciers at the foot of the Himalayas and ending in the fast disappearing mangrove forests of the Sundarbans,Qadri captured a breathtaking range along his odyssey: celebration and death,solitude and fellowship,daily life and holy rites. He researched each of the locations he visited, maximizing his ability to capture each of the elements he’d identified early on as critical.

The Ganges is far more than just a river: It is religion,industry,economy,farming and politics. It is a source of water for millions of people,and an immense septic system that is among the most polluted waterways in the world.

The Ganges is central to Hindu living,so much so that festivals take place around it. Devout Hindus brave the harshness of weather conditions and seem oblivious to the pollution to take holy dips in the river at least once in their lifetime, believing that this act will rid them of their sins.

Because the river is also controlled by the weather,Altaf had to plan concisely so that no trip was wasted. He had to trek to Gangotri glacier before the ice melted. He had to capture much of the river before the tempest that comes with the monsoon rain. He shot video,took audio and wrote the text. The video complemented the photos. As one judge commented,when we look back at the AP’s best work of 2020,Qadri’s will certainly figure prominently.

For extraordinary work in enterprise and spot news journalism,Qadri and the Belarus team of Chernov,Grits,Karmanau, Kozlov and Lovetsky share AP’s Best of the Week award.

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