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‘I see this as a launching point,’ says Sara Naomi Lewkowicz of her World Press Photo first prize win

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz wins first prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category for her project documenting domestic violence

“To be honest, I’m totally in shock,” American photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz tells BJP on the phone.  “I’m not one of those people who enters competitions and watches with bated breath. It’s too much pressure and I get too nervous. I enter competitions and then I forget. But it’s wonderful [to have won]. I see this as a launching point. There’s a big difference between winning a prize for one piece of work and having a canon of work behind you. For me, this is my jumping-off point. Now I feel my work has begun.”

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The New York photojournalist, who is currently studying a Master’s degree in Visual Communication at Ohio University, won first prize in the Contemporary Issues (stories) category for her project, A Portrait of Domestic Violence, shot for Time magazine.

In the project, Lewkowicz documents the relationship of a couple, Shane and Maggie, which turns violent. She began the project in September 2012, but it wasn’t a subject she initially set out to explore.

“I met Shane and Maggie and spent time with them, documenting their relationship dynamic,” Lewkowicz tells BJP. “Shane had spent a lot of time incarcerated and had had a rough start in life, so I was looking at how society deals with that. But the project became about something else, which I wasn’t fully aware of at the time.”

Of the impact the award will have on the issue of domestic violence, Lewkowicz is happy it will reach a wider audience. “This isn’t an issue that is limited to one part of the world; it’s important to continue to talk about the subject. I want to make people aware of how domestic violence and abuse in general exists alongside other issues. Photographs are like tools, and in the hands of the right people you can build a better society.”

Lewkowicz speaks of the importance of building trust with her subjects over time. “When you’re asking someone to be vulnerable in front of you, you have to be prepared to be vulnerable in front of them,” she says. “These people don’t have to let you into their lives, so you have to be giving of yourself. You can’t just go into someone’s life and ask for intimate details – you have to earn their trust.”

Although she is working on other projects, Lewkowicz remains in regular contact with Maggie, who is no longer with her partner. “I was actually on the phone with Maggie yesterday. She is in nursing school right now and has made the decision to support herself and her kids. The next phase of the story is to see her evolve into an independent woman who is in control of her own destiny.”