A Multimedia Presentation of

Introduction by Helen Buttfield

When you know what a photographer chooses to look at, you have already learned a great deal about him. "Those little rectangles," as Roy Stryker so perceptively referred to photographs, tell us the rest. Joseph Sywenkyj, who is still a very young man, has already chosen to enter a world that most of us choose to avoid: the field of human suffering. His first essay, in black and white, was a meditation on the suppressed, hidden lives of two autistic brothers, whom he photographed with tenderness and great intelligence, using his lens to penetrate their silence.

Now he has taken on the darker, more dreadful silence caused by our ignorance of the suffering that has resulted from the explosion at Chornobyl in 1986. He has done this by returning to the country of his fathers, where both the language and his long familiarity with Ukrainian traditions have been his allies. His photographs from the hospitals and orphanages he visited oblige us to see, as if we were standing there ourselves, the cruel deformations that radiation has imposed on children's bodies and to feel the pain they cause. How can we bear to look at them? Because his photographs also contain a terrible beauty that sustains us as we take in their truth. Perhaps it is the painted blue wall that appears behind one boy, his spine so curled backward that he seems to be rising from a sea of infinite blue.

In another we see a field of cots with four boys, each in his cot, each body twisted, each wrapped in his own pain. We see the first one, then a second, and a third and finally a fourth, younger, still able to sit. And we experience them one at a time, directly, each an individual bound in his own world. In a third, easier to bear, the linked figures of two attendants create a living circle that encloses a tiny infant as if to protect him, lying prone and helpless in the radiant light. The nurse in white, as graceful as a Botticelli goddess, seems in her beauty to be a figure that absorbs and even transcends suffering.

Ukraine is also enduring one of the worst HIV/AIDS epidemics in Europe, where the region's stumbling economy and dysfunctional health system make it impossible for most of the sufferers to afford the medication which could ease their pain and keep them alive. Sywenkyj, working with Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations, has responded to this crisis with equal passion, using his camera to reveal not only the sufferings of the victims but the courage of others working to change their despair into hope.

Photographers like Joseph, who can look steadily at the unbearable, have a tremendous power, the power to capture images that convert ignorance into awareness and fear into understanding, without which there can be no change. Fortunately for the world, in the hands of such strong and compassionate photographers these images are, as Roy Stryker said so long ago, "one of the damnedest educational tools ever made."

Enter Joseph Sywenkyj's Photo Gallery

Read Joseph's statement
about the Chornobyl story.
Read Joseph's statement
about the Ukranian AIDS story.

Video Interview with
Joseph Sywenkyj

To view these intervew clips, you must have
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Click below

"I was surrounded by many different cultures."
Click below
Early influences in photography.
Getting sponsored for his first documentary.
"I wanted to show people living everyday lives."
"I like to spend as much time with people as I can."
"It's a personal experience for me."
"That's a kid's body in there."
Shooting techniques
"I don't use the camera as a shield."

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to Joseph Sywenkyj.

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