Alumnus Joseph Sywenkyj (BFA 2002 Photography) recently received this year’s $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography for his project, Verses from a Nation in Transition, which documents how family life has been altered due to political strife in Ukraine. In his application for the grant, he writes, “It is through stories of families who have been seriously impacted physically, mentally and economically by the crisis that we will gain insight into and how events in the country are influencing society as a whole.” Sywenkyj’s work was chosen from 170 entries received from 37 countries. “I was thrilled and also very humbled,” he told SVA Close Up upon notification of the award.
Raised in Connecticut, Sywenkyj has dedicated much of his artistic vision to Ukraine, where his parents were born. His first visit was as a teenager, and later he returned to study folk dancing. After an injury impeded his study in dance, he began exploring Ukraine, camera in hand. His subjects have included the explosive violence between police forces and peaceful demonstrators in Kiev as well as the quiet trials of a family dealing with AIDS in Odesa.
The latter project, Verses: A Family in Odesa, Ukraine, features a family in intimate settings—a bedroom, kitchen, or backyard—or in the midst of the country itself—on a dirt road, on a bus, in a hospital. Many of the photographs reveal a subtle sense of uncertainty and apprehension.
Sywenkyj will use the grant money to continue documenting families affected by the current conflict in Ukraine. “I feel very energized in many respects,” Sywenkyj says about the award, “but I’m also conscious of what I will be documenting, which will pose many challenges. It will not be easy, particularly on an emotional level, but nothing worth doing is.”
Photos from top down: 1) Ira embraces her husband Sasha. Both are HIV-positive. Odessa, Ukraine. 2007. 2) University students Sergey, 19, and Victoria, 20, a young couple from the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, embrace on Independence Square. Sergey later went to Hrushevsky Street where a street battle raged day between demonstrators and police forces in central Kiev, Jan. 22, 2014. 3) A wounded demonstrator receives aid during violent clashes with police forces in the center of Kyiv on Hrushevsky Street. The violence began after demonstrators marched toward parliament from Independence Square. They encountered police forces who blocked their path and the violence ensued from there. Hundreds were wounded in the violence and at least three demonstrators were killed over several days. January 19, 2014. All photos courtesy of Joseph Sywenkyj.