Joseph Sywenkyj has been awarded this year's W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his long-term project on family life in Ukraine, The New York Times reports. He will receive $30,000 to further document families who have been affected physically, mentally and economically by the current conflict.
"Very few people paid attention to Ukraine during the past 15 years that I have been documenting the country, even though there were warning signs of instability and routinely transparent anti-Ukrainian rhetoric coming from Moscow," Mr. Sywenkyj, 36, wrote in his grant application. "Today, the international community takes notice at times, but even then, geopolitics and squabbling between E.U. leaders on how to react to Russian aggression is given prominence in the media. Ukrainian families, who are most affected by acts of war and terrorism, are not even on the radar."
Though Mr. Sywenkyj was raised in northeastern Connecticut, he always felt an intimate connection to Ukraine, where his parents were born. He visited as a teenager and returned after high school to study folk dancing.
After his dance career was cut short by injury, he picked up a camera and began exploring the country. He has spent much of the past 15 years perfecting his craft and creating intimate photographs, many focused on family life.
While Mr. Sywenkyj photographed the Maidan revolution last year, he has spent most of his time following a family that includes a mother, father and daughter who are H.I.V. positive. It is, he said, a slow narrative, "not a story of quick change or fast healing."
It was the experience of a single family, his own, that brought him to Ukraine in the first place. Mr. Sywenkyj grew up with stories of great famine and of how his maternal grandparents endured slave labor in Germany during World War II. It seems fitting that he will now use the prize money to document present day Ukrainian families.
"Focusing on families is an effective tool to look at broader issues because everyone can relate," he said in a phone interview. "Everyone has had a mother, father or sister.