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First place photographers react to winning World Press Photo prizes

On Friday, February 15, World Press Photo announced the winners of the 56th annual contest. The jury gave prizes in nine themed categories to 54 photographers of 32 nationalities for what is considered one of the most prestigious photojournalism honors.

CNN caught up with a few of the first place winners via e-mail to talk about their reactions and photographs. Below is an edited version of those conversations.

Paul Hansen, Sweden, first place Spot News Single, Photo of the Year 2012, photo 1

Reaction: I thought it was a prank call. I have mixed feelings about it. It's a horrible picture. It’s an honor, of course, but it’s very sad. These two children died. I have very mixed emotions.

Story: The story behind the photo started the day before it was shot. Hansen and a colleague were talking to a Norwegian doctor in a hospital. The doctor told the story of a Gaza City family whose home had been destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. Two young children - a girl and a boy - and their father were killed, and their mother was sent to the intensive care unit.

The next day, on November 20, 2012, Hansen and his colleague set out to cover a funeral. It was for the woman's children and husband whose bodies were marched through the neighborhood, their destroyed home unable to house grieving relatives.

The picture is one of 12 of the day's events, taken for Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

Paul Nicklen, Canada, first place for Nature Story, photo 7

Reaction: What an incredible thrill it is to be able to tell the story of the polar ecosystems I am so passionate about, and to have my work recognized in such a way. Winning first prize for World Press Photo for the second time is an unbelievable honor, but swimming with those Emperor Penguins has been one of the greatest moments of my career as a National Geographic Photographer.  I couldn't be happier.

Story: Nicklen’s richly colored photographs, many underwater, provide a glimpse into the lives of emperor penguins in Antarctica. The National Geographic photographer was in Antarctica at the time of the award announcement without internet access. When CNN reached out to him for a comment, his partner, Cristina Mittermeier, said he hadn’t even heard the news.

Maika Elan, Vietnam, first place for Contemporary Issues Story, photo 9

Reaction: Trembling and astonished. Then I called my dad and my husband. My dad asked me if I was sure or not; he also asked me to check the result again.

Story: While people may say they're open about homosexuality, Elan found that when she showed photos of same-sex couples in intimate moments, most considered the image disgusting and unacceptable. The reaction served as a springboard for her photo series, “The Pink Choice.”

Elan said many Vietnamese photo stories on homosexuality or deviances are symbolic imagery, and the subjects are not represented as themselves.

“’The Pink Choice’ has a different approach as it seeks out personal stories using direct language: documentary photography to capture real moments and real people,” she said.

By capturing daily, familiar activities of these couples, she hopes to create interest and empathy in her audience.

Rodrigo Abd, Argentina, first place for General News Single, photo 10

Reaction: My first reaction was surprise. I had no idea that the World Press Photo would announce the winners. I was really happy as I read the e-mail with the good news. I have been really disconnected for two weeks, shooting a story about Mapuches in rural areas of southern Chile.

Story: Inside a Red Cross hospital, an injured Syrian woman named Aida cries, her hand in front of her bloody, tear-stained face. She is in shock from the day’s events. Three children, also injured, surround her. As Abd prepared to take photos, a relative of Aida’s told him not to ask her any questions. Her home had been destroyed, killing her husband and two other children, and she hadn’t heard the bad news yet.

Jan Grarup, Denmark, first place Sports Feature Story, photo 11

Reaction: I was really glad that they chose this story of mine since I have been working in Somalia for the last three years documenting life of the civilian population who are caught up between war and famine. The life of these women is hard - they are not only fighting for the right to do sports, but also female rights in a country where radical Islamists are still a constant threat.

Story: Armed forces guard women playing basketball in war-torn, famine-stricken Somalia, a place where women’s rights do not include playing sports. The players receive text messages threatening punishment of death if they continue playing. When they are in the streets, they dress like the other women, Grarup said. But when they’re on the court, they transform into young girls, laughing and training as if they were professionals.

Micah Albert, USA, first place in Contemporary Issues Singles, photo 13

Reaction: Shock. I’ve looked up to the photographers for years that are included in the winners. To be included and noted by critics is a huge honor for me.

Story: Albert’s project reveals what proximity to Kenya’s Dandora Municipal Dump Site has meant for the health, dignity, spirit and landscape of surrounding communities, he said. He shows what is behind the numbers of people affected by the uncleanly area, such as his winning photo of a Kenyan woman reading a book she found.

Bernat Armangue, Spain, first place Spot News Story, photo 14

Reaction: It was an easy morning. My wife put on "Lean on Me" from Bill Withers during breakfast time, and I had some time to play with my son before going to the office. On my way I got a message from a good friend saying "First prize spot news stories," so my first thought was "so seems it will be a good day..."

Story: Smoke billows from a burning building in Gaza City during the last bout of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in November. Armangue labels the series a resume of the exchange in the Gaza Strip, including the stories of people who live there and how their lives have been transformed.

Roman Vondrous, Czech Republic, first place in Sports Action Story, photo 15

Reaction: With all the entries to World Press Photo, I wasn’t even expecting to be awarded. It came as a huge surprise.

Story: Vondrous has long been fascinated by horse racing and began photographing events in 2000. For his winning series, the images come from three different horse tracks with a variety of weather. He believes his depth of knowledge on the subject could have assisted him in putting together the winning selection.

Alessio Romenzi, Italy, first place in General News Story, photo 17

Reaction: Yesterday I was in Turkey, traveling in a minibus toward the border of Syria. I had been waiting for months for that moment. I wanted to see Hussein, my best Syrian friend, the one that always helped me during my first and scary trip inside Syria one year ago.

After days of dangerous travel he managed to go out of his country for the first time since the beginning of the uprising. I was going to meet him as soon as he had crossed the border in Bab al-Hawa, on the border of Syria and Turkey.

Well, sitting on that minibus my good friend Gianluigi called me from Tunisia saying that my work had been awarded at the World Press Photo. Bad network, no Internet. I didn't know the details.

I thought of the beginning of the story with Hussein one year ago and all the other times I have been inside Syria. All friends, risks and unrepeatable human experiences. I thought how I was going to meet my friend, the one that somehow started it all. The circle was about to be closed and in an exceptional manner.

Story: There’s not much to say about the back story of this Syrian series, Romenzi said. The unrest has been ongoing in the news for almost two years, killing and displacing tens of thousands, according to the United Nations. When Romenzi photographs in crisis zones, he hopes to “hold the hand of the viewers and take them with me,” he said. Syria was no different. He wants the viewer to see, feel and smell the captured frame. It’s that principle that brought him to Syria.

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN

All photos courtesy World Press Photo

Related: Behind the World Press Photo of the Year