ARTS & CULTURE

This Year's Activist Awards Showcase Some Of The World's Most Impactful Photography

04/17/2015 09:31 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

"The photograph itself doesn't interest me," famed photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson famously proclaimed. "I want only to capture a minute part of reality."

Such an ethos might help to explain the spirit of San Francisco-based Catchlight's Activist Awards, an annual photography contest that honors both professional and emerging individuals whose visual work focuses on the issues -- underrepresented as they might be -- of our time. The 2014 winners certainly uphold the promise: Swedish professional Åsa Sjöström's "The Secret Camps" documents life in a secluded refuge for women and children, emerging Tamil photographer Amirtharaj Stephen's "Koodankulam: A Nuclear Plant In My Backyard" chronicles community protesters in opposition of the Indian and Russian Government's Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP).

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Amid the sea of awards recognizing outstanding efforts in the field of photography today, the Activist Awards manage to set itself apart. The competition doesn't just celebrate innovation and beauty in art, it shines a spotlight on the photographers raising awareness of social agency around the globe, while creating new technologies along the way.

The Activist Awards began in 2009 under the former PhotoPhilanthropy banner, and has since seen submissions from over 600 photographers collaborating with 450 nonprofit organizations in 90 different countries. “These photographers are the eyes on the ground for the rest of us," Catchlight managing director Shoka Javadiangilani explained in a statement. "We want to find and connect devoted and trustworthy visual storytellers, and support them any way possible, to continue helping them do what they are best at. Without seeing, we have little chance to understand how things work and to improve ourselves and the world around us."

Stephen's images are bathed in shadows, the monochromatic photos giving a glimpse into the life of villagers in the Tirunelveli district of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Protesters flock in front of churches and beaches, rallying against the construction of a nuclear power plant they deemed unsafe for their village. Ultimately, the plant was built, but as Stephen's project illustrates, officials form Russia and India who commissioned the structure did little to successfully assuage the very real, post-Cold War fears of the fisherman-heavy community.

In contrast, Sjöström's series features the obscured faces of women and children living in "secret" Swedish camps meant to function as havens for victims of domestic and honor violence. The pastel-heavy snapshots show bits of leisure, as the young women and their families spend time in the open air. While the images are a far cry from the typical photojournalistic documentation, the unique vision resulted in what the Activist Awards judges like Time magazine photo editor Alice Gabriner and Stephen Mayes, executive director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, deemed an "imaginative, creative, and well-edited series."

Out of the 256 entries in the 2014 Activist Awards, from 54 separate countries, Sjöström and Stephen collected $15,000 and $5,000 respectively after the announcement of their wins this week. Check out their work, with captions provided:

Professional:

  • Åsa Sjöström
    Some children swim in a lake for the first time. They can play and laugh, without being scared.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    The shelters can be crowded, and the relationship between mothers and their children often becomes strained as the mothers go through the difficult process of restarting their lives.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    While the camp lasts only three days, it leaves a significant impression on its attendees.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    Although residents are safe at women's shelters, conditions can feel prison­‐like. Details of one’s life are strictly controlled: addresses are kept secret and no visitors are allowed, while the abuser walks freely.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    Children are largely forgotten at most women's shelters, falling somewhere between the adult world and the jurisdiction of authorities. It’s rare for a shelter to have a specialist for helping children deal with domestic violence.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    The secret camp at the lake has a diverse group of attendees, including those with backgrounds from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Turkey, Yemen, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Albania, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tanzania, as well as Swedes. Close to 60 women and children, who had the strength to leave their abusive environments, attend the camp during each session.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    I had prepared myself for the worst outbursts; that my children would weep over all their belongings and the clothes they had to leave behind because we had to flee our home with only the clothes we had on us. But when we got into our room at the shelter my 8 year old child said: “Mom, are we able to decide by ourselves how we will live from now on?” ‐ Mother of Two Children
  • Åsa Sjöström
    The lakes in Sweden are situated on beautiful sites, and often well hidden in the Swedish forests.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    Wild flowers grow everywhere here. The enchanting forest environment invites the children and their mothers to arrange beautiful bouquets together.
  • Åsa Sjöström
    I hate that our stepfather still lives in our large townhouse and has all of our things and can go out whenever he wants, while I no longer exist. I have no friends anymore. I can never contact my old friends again. ‐ Girl, 14

Emerging:

  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    An Indian Coast Guard plane flies too low over the protesting villagers, who have ventured into the sea as a part of their Jal Satyagraha.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Fishermen bring their catch to the village auction center on Theripu day. "Theripu," meaning tax, is being collected from the villagers' catch to run the protests. One tenth of a single day's revenue is collected every week.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Villagers from the Koothankuli, prevented from going to Idinthakarai by the imposition of a curfew, gather in front of the church and shout anti-government slogans.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Children from Idinthakarai with the post cards they have written to the Russian Ambassador, requesting Russia stop providing technical support to the nuclear project on Hiroshima Day, 2012.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Idinthakarai villagers and their children sleep on the seashore near Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant, protesting the commissioning of the plant.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Police forces assemble in front of the KNPP, preparing to go on rounds in Koodankulam village after the imposition of a curfew.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, cries out for help after being chased into the sea with no place to run. She is later both helped and arrested by security forces, and is subsequently charged with 16 offenses including the serious charges of sedition and waging war against the nation.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Napolean, a resident of Idinthakarai, runs after being attacked by the police.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Women weep and pray to Mother Mary at the Lourdes church, after police attack villagers during the siege.
  • Amirtharaj Stephen
    Children of Sahayam cry during his funeral mass. A low flying Indian Coast Guard plane startled him, causing him to fall off of the boulder he was standing on, the fall's impact killing him.

The Most Breathtaking Photos From Around The World This Year
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