December 2023

Annual IWPA awards address underrepresentation of women photographers

Lee-Ann Olwage (South Africa) The Right To Play
In her series “The Right To Play,” Lee-Ann Olwage portrays girls attending Kakenya’s Dream School highlighting their resilience and empowerment in the face of challenges like poverty, low education rates, harmful medical practices, and child marriage in rural Kenya.

There’s no denying that sometimes visual storytelling connects with us at a deeper level than the written word. Every year since 2016, the France-based International Women in Photography Association (IWPA) has been showcasing the work of exceptionally talented women photographers and sharing their unique narratives.*

The work of this year’s laureates and finalists, which are exhibited at the FCCJ until December 2, addressed global challenges that disproportionately affect women and children. 

In his opening remarks for the panel to accompany the IWPA 2023 Award Exhibition, FCCJ President Dave McCombs praised the rawness and originality of the selected photos on display: “In an age of AI generating fake news and fake images, authenticity becomes so much more important,” he said.

One such powerful photographic series is titled Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences. It was produced by Sara Bennett, the winner of the IWPA award in the Emerging category, and skilfully captures these women’s resilience, introspection, and dignity.

Indeed, accompanying the visuals are prisoners’ heartfelt messages. “Just because we ask for a second chance at life doesn’t mean we have forgotten what we have done; it means we were once part of the problem and to heal those we have hurt we must be part of the solution, part of the conversation,” wrote Patrice, a 41-year-old inmate who was incarcerated at the age of 16 in 1998 and sentenced from 25 years to life.

Bennett believes incarceration and excessive prison time is not always the answer. As a public-defender-turned-photographer, she spent 18 years working inside the U.S. justice system and had unprecedented access to women serving life sentences in New York prisons. “I always got pretty involved in my clients, probably more so than a lot of attorneys,” she said. 

The urge to showcase these women’s multifaceted identities and demonstrate that they are about far more than their convictions prompted her to start this project. She remembers picking up the case of a woman in her 60s named Judy, who was sentenced to 75 years to life and had already served more than 25 years. Bennett ended up taking photos of 15 of Judy’s former fellow inmates to create a booklet for her.  

Bennett said: “I showed it to my friends, and they were like ‘Oh, what’s she in prison for? She looks so … normal. She looks like a grandmother.’”

The winner in the Professional category was Lee-Ann Olwage, whose series The Right To Play portrays girls attending Kakenya’s Dream school in rural Kenya. Through her work, the South African highlights their resilience and empowerment in the face of challenges such as poverty, low education rates, harmful medical practices, and child marriage.

Olwage said that Kakenya, the girl the school is named after, would normally be destined to undergo genital mutilation and forced to get married at the age of 12. However, Kakenya made a deal with her father and other elderly men in her village inside the Maasai Mara reserve that allowed her to finish high school and go to university. In return, she was made to promise to do something for the community – a commitment that resulted in Kakenya’s Dream.

Olwage’s past and present projects focus on African youth – their dreams and hopes, as well as their hardships. She said she had focused on positive aspects of the girls’ lives because she didn’t want to “show girls and women from the African continent as being the victims of these circumstances, because that’s something we’ve seen enough of”.

I asked Olwage, a two-time World Press Photo winner in 2020 and 2023, what kind of reaction she gets when she approaches her subjects of the opposite gender and race. She replied: “When you talk about difficult social issues especially in a culture you are not part of, it’s extremely important to look at the individuals within that community who are making changes, and how they’re doing that.”     

Berlin-based director and photographer Louise Amelie, renowned for her captivating documentary and street photography, was among the finalist in the Professional category. Featuring photos of teenagers, her series, Missing Member, explores the complex subject of migration through the individual stories of residents of Bishkek, reflecting the indomitable spirit of Kyrgyzstan’s young population confronted by post-Soviet challenges.

“Every family (in Kyrgyzstan) has at least one family member who’s in a different country to support the family, which leaves a gap in society that the families and relatives have to deal with,” she said in reference to the series title, Missing Member.       

Amelie grew up with people of diverse backgrounds in Berlin and has watched the rise of the right-wing in Germany with great concern. For this project, she collaborated with Dasha Nesterova, a fellow Berliner and social worker specializing in migration and asylum whose previous work in Kyrgyzstan took Amelie to that country. She is also the founder of Bishkek Art Weeks and the Chairwoman of Art City International Art and Culture Association.

Questioning national identity was another theme running through this year’s IWPA awards. As part of her long-term project to establish a national visual identity for Moldova, Natalia Garbu presented Moldova Lookbook, which offers a vivid exploration of Moldova’s colorful landscapes and contrasts, capturing the essence of a country still shaping its identity and place in the world.

Located between Ukraine and Romania, and having been founded only 30 years ago, the Republic of Moldova is a relatively new democracy. “If you asked me ten years ago ‘Who are you?’, I wouldn’t know. First of all, I was born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore,” Garbu said. Moldova was, at times, part of the Russian Empire, as well as the Soviet Union and Romania. The country’s politics combine an Eastern vision seeking a return to Soviet-style socialism with more Western concepts such as independence and democracy, Garbu explained.      

The poignant work of another Professional category finalist, Rayito Flores Pelcastre, addresses the difficult subject of murdering one’s own child, which draws on childhood memories of a classmate in Mexico who had suffered parental abuse. Using bioplastic, her series portrays victims of psychological and physical abuse, sourced from files held by the civic organization LAE in Mexico.

A child dies at the hands of their caregivers every other day in Mexico, according to Pelcastre. Yet the crime of filicide is usually obscured, “because discussing the topic of childhood violence, particularly when committed by a family member is distressing and painful”, she said.

Highlighting the everyday aspects of human existence and exploring the universal quest for identity, Lorraine Turci’s work focuses on the complex relationships between people and their environment. The Ainu indigenous people are a minority largely based in Hokkaido and, much like the Inuit of Alaska, are trying to adapt to modern life.  

Turci received an IWPA Special Mention for her work, The Resilience of the Crow, in which she asked what it means to be an Ainu today. She followed her partner to Hokkaido before the Covid-19 pandemic to document contemporary Ainu life, showcasing their vibrant culture and distinct identity. Many were reluctant to meet Turci, fearing that they would experience a backlash if they publicly revealed their backgrounds. “They are struggling with discrimination, even if they don’t say so,” Turci said, adding that she had formed strong bonds with the Ainu people she photographed and was eager to go back to Hokkaido.

*The open call for submissions to the 7th edition of IWPA Awards was held between May 1 and June 30 this year and attracted an impressive 1,900 projects from a record-breaking 106 countries. All of the prize-winning works can be viewed at

Ilgin Yorulmaz is a freelance reporter for BBC World Turkish. She is the Second Vice President of the FCCJ.