On October 7th the W. Eugene Smith Fund announced the winners of this year’s Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. While in earlier iterations, one photographer would receive a grant of $50,000 to further their photographic work, this year’s grant, like last years, will be split between five photographers who will each receive $10,000. The Fund’s Board of Trustees authorized this change last year, and continued the division of the grant for this year because of the continuing struggles and financial needs many photographers are facing. This year’s winners of the W. Eugene Smith Grant are Lalo de Almeida (Brazil), Kimberly dela Cruz (Philippines), Melissa Lyttle (USA), Cristopher Rogel Blanquet (Mexico), and Nicolo Filippo Rosso (Italy).
At the same time, the Fund also announced the winner of the 4th annual Smith Student grant and the 25th annual Howard Chapnick grant. The Howard Chapnick Grant is awarded to someone in any field who works alongside photojournalism, such as photo editing, research, and management. The grant’s namesake, Howard Chapnick, was a photo editor, author, and the long-term leader of the famed Black Star photo agency. Salih Basheer (Sudan), a student at Cairo University, is the recipient of the Smith Student Grant for his project “22 Days in Between.” Sarah Stacke (USA) is the recipient of the 25th annual Howard Chapnick grant for the “400 Year Project.”
The work of each of the five winners of the W. Eugene Smith Grant covers a range of topics from around the world.
Nicolo Filippo Rosso covers the journeys of refugees and migrants through Central and South America in “Exodus“. Lalo de Almeida’s work looks at the occupation of the Amazon Rainforest and how its impacts through the series “Amazonian Dystopia.” Cristopher Rogel Blanquet documents the unrestricted use of agrochemicals in Mexico in “Beautiful Poison.” Kimberly dela Cruz shows the effects of the war on drugs in the Philippines in her series “Death of a Nation.” Finally, Melissa Lyttle documents the confederate monuments that have been taken down since the death of George Floyd for the project “Where They Stood.”
The stories behind the projects also show not just the commitment of the individual photographers to the stories they tell, but to how inspiration can arise from any number of places, as long as one is paying attention to the world around them. Nicolo Filippo Rosso began his work after completing his studies in Literature in Italy and began traveling through Latin America, eventually settling in Colombia. “I started documenting the life and death battle for the survival of the Wayuu indigenous nation in Colombia, the worsening impact of fossil fuel exploitation on climate change in the La Guajira peninsula, and the Venezuelan exodus in Colombia. In 2018, after a few editorial assignments documenting the Venezuelan migration, I decided to work on this phenomenon personally.”
He started spending weeks at a time along the border regions of Colombia and Venezuela, traveling along the migration routes with those move along the routes. ” In 2021, in the aftermath of hurricanes Eta and Iota, I traveled to Honduras to document one of the most significant migration waves of the last decades directed to the United States. After documenting the journey of those migrants in Guatemala and Mexico, I was surprised to see so many Venezuelans crossing the Rio Grande and entering the United States in Texas. They had first migrated to Colombia and felt forced to continue to move because Colombia had too little to offer them. They had joined the routes of Central American migrants who fled violence, poverty, and political instability. There, I understood how forced migrations in the Americas are connected and how broadly they affect the continent’s societies.”
Cristopher Rogel Blanquet came to his story on the effects of the chemicals used in the flower industry in early 2020 after a job interview with Reuters in 2019 led to his looking for an angle to explore climate change: ” So I decided to address the issue of malformations and congenital conditions due to the use of agrochemicals and pesticides in Villa Guerrero, it is an issue that had been ignored and I knew it was a good opportunity to talk about the case.”
“After weeks of looking for contacts in the region, I managed to talk with Mrs. Petra, Sebastian’s mother, who is the main face of my work. Sebastian is about to turn 19 years old, but it looks like he is 7 or 8. He was born with hydrocephalus. His parents have dedicated their entire lives to the cultivation of the flower. Tino, his father, has been fumigating for decades. Doña Petra, who died earlier this year, had kidney failure, due to the pandemic she was unable to receive medical attention. She told me from day one that her house was open and that she could go whenever she wanted.”
“I returned more times and continued documenting the subject, it is more complex than it seems. It is a cyclical problem, on the one hand there is direct contamination to people, but also to the region’s livestock, which in turn feed on contaminated grass and then serve as food for the community.”
Melissa Lyttle’s work began in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020. ” Within two weeks of George Floyd’s death, I started seeing news stories about Confederate monuments all across the U.S. coming down, in record number. And it felt like we were at a real turning point as a country, and I started brainstorming about how I could tell this story differently — since it wasn’t going to be possible to get to them when they were actually being removed, either by vandalism or by a city or county government. Those things were usually taking place in the middle of the night and often times unannounced.”
“Then I got the idea to dig into local, state, and national archives to find images of when the monuments were first put up as a way to create a conversation about then and now. I’ve been pairing the archival images with photos I’ve taken that show where they once stood as well as images showing where the monuments are now. The diptychs and triptychs show that passage of time, and hint at how far we’ve come.”
All of the winners reiterated how thankful they are for the grant, as well as their commitment to live up to the ideals and responsibility that the award bestows on their work. “Receiving the Eugene Smith Grant is an honor for me, I feel great emotion but above all it is a responsibility. I am committed to this project and I must count it with the dignity deserved by the people who trusted me and allowed me to enter their homes, their lives” told Cristopher Rogel Blanquet. Lalo de Almeida responded that “Besides the personal satisfaction, of course, the award comes at a very important time, when the Amazon forest has never been so threatened. We have a government in Brazil that sees the preservation of the Amazon as an obstacle to development and the resistance to this idea within the country is very small, unfortunately. So I believe that only pressure from abroad could make this environmentally destructive government change its attitude towards the Amazon forest.” Nicolo Filippo Rosso said “I hope that this recognition will bring more attention to the struggle of so many people forced to flee their homes worldwide and inspire actions to reduce poverty and violence in Latin America as the main drivers of migration. Photography is a form of protest against injustices. I am grateful that this work is reaching more and more people through recognitions that reflect the commitment to ethics and humanity at the core of my practice.”
In the prologue to the book Minamata, W. Eugene Smith recalls telling an editor at LIFE magazine “My belief is that my responsibility within journalism are two. My first responsibility is to my subjects. My second responsibility is to my readers.” The work of all the winners of this year’s Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography live up to these dual ideals. Howard Chapnick titled his 1994 book “Truth Needs no Ally.” But in today’s world, the truth needs all the help it can get. The grants made by the W. Eugene Smith Foundation are exactly the ally that photographers from around the world need to continue to tell the stories that otherwise would be overlooked.
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.