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Polish Photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz Wins W. Eugene Smith Grant

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Justyna Mielnikiewicz has been awarded the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Fund, an annual prize that champions the work of humanistic photographers from around the world. The $30,000 grant was given to her project “A Diverging Frontier: Russia and its Neighbors”, which brings to life a region still in disarray, nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Receiving this award is a validation,” Mielnikiewicz tells TIME. “It’s just good to know that something you’ve been working on for 15 years is considered worthwhile. I have been working from the Caucasus and Ukraine for a long period and there has not really been a huge interest in the region. The award doesn’t just endorse originality of the topic or talent but a big part of this prize is support to the commitment of the photographer.”

Mielnikiewicz’s work is a study in shifting borders and national identities; it documents life for those on the edges of Russia. “The idea of a border is very abstract to me,” says Mielnikiewicz. “Who decides who can live in a certain land and who cannot? How many years do you have to be living on the physical space of certain countries to be eligible to claim citizenship? They are questions without answers.” December 2016 will mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, when 15 Soviet republics became independent countries. For Mielnikiewicz, it is the border countries, still grappling with Russia’s sphere of influence, that interest her most.

Mielnikiewicz’s work may be journalistic but it offers a very different perspective to the typical news coverage of war-torn Ukraine. “It was very important to show these places in the everyday, “ she explains. “Even in the time of war, people still get up, brush their teeth, have to do their shopping. They go meet their friends, they marry and they die. In a peaceful time it’s easier, in wartime it’s harder. But war or revolution or unrest doesn’t stop real life.”

While the obvious focus may be areas that are “on fire”, Mielnikiewicz searches for the human narratives within a wider context. The impact of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the ongoing war in Ukraine is marked through intimate familial portraits. Mielnikiewicz deliberately removed any images of politicians from her final edit as she wished the focus to be on the everyday people: A Ukrainian father, returning from the frontline embracing his daughter or a family weeping beside the open casket of a young Georgian woman, killed in the Gali bombing.

Though Mielnikiewicz’s work in Ukraine won a grant from The Aftermath Project in 2015, the project began without an assignment, which motivated her to photograph on film. “It was a conscious decision. By documenting on film I could get away from the obsessive elements of news,” she explains. “Film allows you to step back, it’s a slower process. It doesn’t give you that news junkie fix where you’re obsessively going through the photos in the evening.”

In a region that often has contrary interpretations of recent history, her work speaks to both sides of past and present conflicts – and all of the grey in between. “War is not black and white,” she says. “What interests me is the mixed families and the borderland areas where things are not so clear cut.” Her approach straddles the candid and the emotional and while she gives both sides a voice, her “objectivity is set within the rules of rationality.”

The Eugene Smith Grant will allow her to complete this body of work and present a comprehensive visual guide to the considerable impact of border divisions on the Russian diaspora.

Other awardees of 2016 Smith grants include Oscar B. Castillo who received the Smith Fund Fellowship for “Our War, Our Pain. The Debacle of a Dream” and Liza Faktor who won the Howard Chapnick Grant for “Practicing Transmedia in Photojournalism”.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photographer based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter

Alexandra Genova is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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Amina left war-torn Chechnia (II Chechen war ) and moved to Odessa where she studied and became a doctor. She was in Maidan, Kiev, from December 2014 working as a medical volunteer. Odessa, July 2015Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Youths play at the city beach on Dnieper River pouring water on each other. Hydropark is a landscape-recreational park on the Dnieper River. The Kiev metro station with the same name opened in 1965 and connected Hydropark Island to the city and transformed the island to a summer resort for Kievans Kiev, July 2015 Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Captain Kasyanenko Nikolay Vasilevich holds his daughter after arriving from the front line back home, where he was for a year. Cherkasy, July 2015Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Wedding of Alexey and Elena. They came from a small town nearby to take wedding pictures by Dnieper River and Dnipropetrovsk. Dniepropetrovsk, July 2015Justyna Mielnikiewicz
David Ebralidze with his daughter .Julia Tarasova moved to Ukraine 15 years ago from Murmansk, Russia. She supported both the Orange and Maidan Revolutions and became David’s partner in 2013. David volunteered to fight separatists in 2014 and was granted Ukrainian citizenship as a result. David and Julia are two protagonists from my project that I have been following for two years.From an interview with Julia:“I never thought I would bid farewell to man going to war. Before, we watched Soviet movies about World War II, where women in headscarfs bid farewell to their men. We watched them as kids, thinking they were part of history that would never repeat. I have bid farewell to David three or four times more… The first time it is hard, then you get used to it. But still each time is like the last time (…) When he was a freed from prisoner of war, I met him on the road from Donetsk to Dniepropetrovsk. The whole way I imagined how I would greet him, jump on him and embrace him…but when he came, it was a different person that met me. Outside it was him, but inside it was a stranger… The body cannot deceive you, I couldn’t pretend, I wasn’t able to compose myself. I was happy he was alive but a different person was standing in front of me.”
David Ebralidze with his daughter. Zaporizhia, Spring 2016 Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Woman With A Monkey - Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.
Local election observers at a polling station during parliamentary elections. Baku, Azerbaijan, 2005 Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Woman With A Monkey - Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.
Iveta Toria, killed in a July bombing in Gali. Georgia/ Abkhazia, 2008 Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Woman With A Monkey - Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.
Farewell party for the first Georgian soldiers deployed to Iraq. Tbilisi, 2005 Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Woman With A Monkey - Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs.
In a bus during Christmas carnival, weeks before presidential elections. Tbilisi, 2008 Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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