A heart-wrenching image of a little girl crying as her mother is searched at the United States border with Mexico has won the World Press Photo of the Year.

The photograph, by American John Moore, shows Honduran toddler Yanela Sanchez in tears as she and her mother, Sandra Sanchez, are taken into custody by US border officials in McAllen, Texas on June 12 last year.

On Thursday night, Moore - a Getty Images staff photographer and special correspondent - won the major accolade, announced in Amsterdam, Holland.

"I think this image touched many people's hearts, as it did mine, because it humanises a larger story," Moore said of the photograph.

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"When you see Yanela's face, and she is more than 2-years-old now, you really see the humanity and the fear of making such a long journey and crossing a border in the dead of night."

National Geographic and 2019 Photo Contest jury member and photojournalist Alice Martins said the photograph immediately tells viewers so much about the story.

"And at the same time, it really makes you feel so connected to it... This picture shows a different kind of violence that is psychological."

The photograph helped shine a light on President Donald Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy at the border under which immigrants caught entering the US could be criminally prosecuted.

As a result, many apprehended parents were separated from their children, often sent to different detention facilities.

After the photograph was published worldwide, US Customs and Border Protection confirmed that Yanela and her mother had not been among the thousands who had been separated by US officials.

But a global public outcry over the controversial practice resulted in President Trump reversing the policy on June 20.

Moore's photograph will be on show in Auckland at the World Press Photo Exhibition at Smith and Caughey in Queen St from June 29 to July 28.