Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
December 12, 2023 ·  4 min read

Heartbreaking image shows a horse comforting dying cancer patient and her masked little boy

The entries to the World Press Photo Contest have come in, and they are gut-punching. The foundation values high-quality visual stories and journalism. As their website reads, “Our purpose is to connect the world to the stories that matter.” And one photo, in particular, is making everyone gasp. It shows a horse comforting a cancer patient as she holds her son.  

Horse Comforts Cancer Patient in Photo Contest Entry 

Twenty-four-year-old Marion battles metastatic cancer in the palliative care center at Calais Hospital in northern France. In the photo, she holds Ethan, her seven-year-old son while Peyo, the horse, gently nuzzles him. 

With Peyo, we try to recreate life at the end of life, in order to fight, and create an energy to accompany families and caregivers,” says his trainer, Hassen Bouchakour. [1] 

Bouchakour works with Les Sabots du Coeur, a therapy organization. Peyo is a therapy horse being studied by scientists to examine his ability to comfort people in suffering and reduce their anxiety. 

Animal-assisted therapy horse, Peyo, comforts a woman with metastatic cancer, who embraces her son. Taken at Centre Hospitalier de Calais, France, on November 30.
 Photo Credit: JÉRÉMY LEMPIN, FRANCE | World Press Photo

Animal Therapy For Terminally Ill Patients 

Peyo supports about 20 patients in that same facility. The horse once competed in dressage events, but now he comforts patients. He is 15 and seems to have an uncanny ability to detect when people have cancers and tumors. 

“I accompany him, but I let him do what he wants; he’s the one who decides,” says Bouchakour. “What really pushed scientists to take an interest in him and open the health establishment doors to us was this [seeming] ability to greatly reduce [the patients’ dosage of] all hard drugs and thus allow a more peaceful departure.” 

Peyo indicates which room he wants to go into next by lifting or stomping his leg inside the hospital. “Peyo’s nickname given by the medical team name is Doctor Peyo,” says the trainer. The horse has craved human contact even in his show days, choosing people who are in pain, physically, emotionally, and mentally.  

Peyo comes to visit Marion almost every day. “Hassen and Peyo are part of the team; they are not only good for the patients but for us too. When it is hard, we are happy to know they are here,” says Anne Sophie, a nurse at the palliative care center. 

Since 2016, we have supported around 1,000 people until their last breath in the various services in which we operate. Peyo is my other half; he is my life partner; he is everything to me,” says Bouchakour. 

Animal-assisted therapy is becoming more common in health care, especially when comforting patients with psychological and chronic pain. Animals often help reduce stress and anxiety, which helps lower blood pressure and potentially manage pain. 

Some clinics and hospices, like Calais Hospital, embrace animals like horses to comfort patients with terminal illnesses. [2] 

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The 2021 World Press Photo Contest 

For a contest about sharing stories, there was a lot to tell about 2020.  

In an unprecedented year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests around the globe, the nominees share a diversity of interpretations and perspectives to these and other urgent issues such as the climate crisis, transgender people’s rights, and territorial conflicts,” explains the organization on their website. [3] 

The World Press Photo Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1955 and is based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. And this year, 74,470 photos were entered from 4,315 photographers from 130 countries all over the globe. 

There are two winners: one for the World Press Photo of the Year and the other for the World Press Photo Story of the Year. Both will receive €5,000. The jury assesses the images for accurate and visually compelling insights about the world. Then they choose nominees for the following categories: 

  • Portraits  
  • Nature  
  • Sports  
  • Contemporary Issues 
  • Spot News  
  • General News 
  • Environment 
  • Long-Term Projects 

According to Rodrigo Orrantia, curator and 2021 Photo Contest jury member, this year’s entries stood out in their vast approaches to storytelling. “Photographers in general, but specifically photojournalists and press photographers, are discovering new ways of telling stories visually. Some entries stood out because their visual language was really sophisticated, which is a very exciting change from the classic press photography tradition.” [4] 

The winners will be announced on April 15 at an online awards ceremony. Here is the gallery of all of the 2021 nominees

Photo credits to Jeremy Lempini

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  1. “‘Doctor Peyo’: the horse comforting cancer patients in Calais – in pictures.” The Guardian. March 12, 2021.
  2. “World Press Photo 2021: 22 Outstanding Images Nominees For Photo Of The Year.” Forbes. Cecilia Rodriguez.
  3. Introducing the 2021 Photo Contest and 2021 Digital Storytelling Contest nominees.” World Press Photo
  4. “Pandemic, social justice, territorial conflicts: 2021 World Press Photo Contest nominees announced.” Euro News. Natalia Liubchenkova. March 10, 2021