American photographer Joseph Sywenkyj has won the the $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his work documenting the lives of people affected by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
In February, the country saw violent government crackdowns on anti-government protests on Kiev’s central square and later the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych‘s administration. In March, Russia annexed Crimea, igniting clashes between the Kiev-aligned military and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.
“I lived through [the violence] and photographed what was happening in a city I consider home,” Sywenkyj tells TIME. “It was more like photographing my community, it wasn’t a foreign story to me in any way. Out on the square risking their lives for democracy were my neighbors, friends and family members,” he adds.
Sywenkyj — who has documented life in Ukraine for 15 years, often focusing on those living with HIV — embedded himself with locals hoping the photographs that emerged would allow “[viewers to] see past the foreignness of the people in the images,” he says.
“I do not go out seeking to create the most dynamic photographs of peak moments of action,” Sywenkyj says. “What I am most often looking for are quieter moments that get at something else. Family is one of those things most people can relate to.”
“Joseph Sywenkyj’s Verses from a Nation in Transition takes a sensitive and poignant look at how Ukranian families who are most affected by acts of war and terrorism are not even on the international community’s radar,” says Christie’s Stuart Alexander, a Smith Fund board member and lead adjudicator for this year’s grant. “His images remind us that in the end it is the citizens, the communities, and the families that are always the ones who suffer most, and forces us to look at who we are as a world community to allow it to continue.”
The W. Eugene Smith judges also awarded a $5,000 Fellowship to Magnum photographer and TIME contributor Moises Saman for his work Discordia. “It is a great honor and a welcome form of validation for this project,” Saman says. Discordia is a “personal attempt to make sense of the work I did on the Arab Spring since 2011, it is a reflection and a search for context on an otherwise chaotic series of events.”
“I am interested in documenting the current period, one in which a certain clarity is starting to emerge in countries like Egypt where, after years of lurking in the shadows during the revolt against Mubarak and the ensuing Muslim Brotherhood experiment, the Army has finally emerged as the true winner, triumphantly personified in the election of Abdul Fatah al-Sisi,” Saman says. “I am also fascinated by the phenomenon of ISIS, and how sectarian extremism has filled a power vacuum in large sectors of disenfranchised Middle Eastern society.”
The $5,000 Fellowship will help ease the costs associated with producing more work, Saman says, and “the attention will hopefully enhance my chances of finding a publisher for a book.”
Now in its 35th year, the grant was established in memory of humanist photographer W. Eugene Smith. Each year, the grant supports and encourages photographers producing humanistic photo stories, with previous winners including Donna Ferrato, James Nachtwey, Eugene Richards, Paolo Pellegrin, Gilles Peress, and Sebastiao Salgado, among many others.