Lens of Humanism: The Andrei Stenin International Photo Contest

by Ranjan Kaul


The Annual Andrei Stenin International Photo Contest recently announced an exhibition featuring the winners of the 2020 contest and also inviting entries for the 2021 contest. Instituted under the patronage of Rossiya Segodnya, the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO, the prestigious photo contest is Russia’s foremost platform for documentary photography and for discovering new photojournalists in Russia and the rest of the world.

Young photojournalists, between 18 and 33 years old, from 75 countries competed in the 2020 contest. The contestants were judged by a stellar jury group that included directors and photo editors from the world’s leading photography and news media outlets as well as international gallerists. Of the around 5000 selected submissions, among the young winners were significantly six young Indian photographers. It is indeed promising to see talented Indian photojournalists making their presence felt on the world stage. This is what prompted me to work on this article, besides of course to share the high-quality works of the winning entries.

The contest is named in honour of the Russian photojournalist Andrei Stenin who died while on an assignment. Stenin had started his photojournalist career in 2003 and won several prizes for his amazing work, most of which he made in conflict zones, including two Silver Camera awards. He went missing while on a business trip in eastern Ukraine (apparently, as reports suggested, he may have been allegedly detained by the Ukranian security service). Later, it became known that he died in August 2014 when the car he was driving was shelled and burnt. He was awarded the Order of Courage for bravery and heroism.

Making a special mention of Indian entries, the Andrei Stenin International Press Photo Contest curator Oksana Oleinik said, “The participation of young photographers from India is a matter of special joy and pride for the Stenin Contest. Since the launch of the contest . . . the number of their victories in the contest has grown remarkably. For instance, at the 2020 contest Indian photographers won six awards! This is the clearest evidence of their talent and skills. Young photojournalists from India dare to combine techniques and genres in their works, think creatively finding a visual embodiment of both ancient cultural traditions and innovations of their country.”

There were altogether four categories for the contest — Top News, Sports, My Planet and Portrait: A Hero of Our Time, which were awarded separately for both Single photos and for a Series. In the “Top News” Single category, independent British investigative journalist and photographer based in the Philippines, Lynzy Billing, won the first place for her photo titled “Buried Justice” and a special prize offered by IRC.


Buried Justice by Lynzy Billing (Great Britain)

Top news, Single Image category, First place/stenincontest


The photo shot in January 2019 shows, in the words of Lynzy, “the body of Ferdinand Santos floating, almost Christ-like, below a bridge in Tondo, Manila, weighted down by a concrete-filled pail with shackles.” Four years ago, President Rodrigo Duterte launched a nationwide anti-drug campaign, killing an estimated 30,000 poor people suspected to be linked to drugs. All the cases remain in legal limbo, with the victims’ families unable to achieve justice for their loved ones. Lynzy Billing adds, “Since 2017, my work has been focused on documenting victims not identified and deaths not investigated amid the president's war on drugs.”


Among the other four winners in the Top News Single category, Chandan Khanna, an Indian photojournalist, was given the Jury Honorable Mention for his work “Devastated Girl”.

Devastated Girl by Chandan Khanna (India)

Top news, Single Image category, Jury Honorable Mention/stenincontest


The heart-wrenching photograph captures the agony of a girl crying out at her father’s funeral along with other mourners organized by the government opposition in Haiti. The Haitian opposition on 9 October 2019 rejected President Moise’s appeal for dialogue after the country’s main cities remained paralyzed over a month of violent anti-corruption protests. Chandan Khanna is a photojournalist working with Agence France-Presse (AFP) based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti covering North-America. After completing his studies at Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication in 2013, he has lived and worked in various countries, and now Haiti, covering social and political events.


DusitD2 Terror Attack by Lui Tato (Spain).

Top news, Series category, Grand Prix/stenincontest

People run for cover after their rescue from the DusitD2 Complex in Nairobi.

The terrified expressions and crouched postures are telling.


For the Top News Series category, Spanish photographer Luis Tato won the Grand Prix for the series titled “DusitD2 Terror Attack”. Luis Tato is a Spanish-born photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. On 15 January 2019 a terrorist attack perpetrated at the upscale DusitD2 complex located in the Westlands area of Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabaaba terrorist, a Jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa, claimed responsibility for the attack where more than 20 people died.


Gilindire Cave – in one breath by Sebem Coskum (Turkey)

Sports, Single Image category, First place/stenincontest


Turkish world record holding free-diver Sahika Ercumen during a training session to break the world record of women’s cave diving at the Gilindire Cave, a glacier cave that is known as the eighth Wonder of the World in Aydincik, Turkey. This breath-taking photograph with light from behind the diver creating a surreal effect won Sebnem Coskum the “Single”, First Place under the “Sports” category and a Special Prize from IRC. The Instanbul-based photographer, who holds a master’s degree from the Marmara Faculty of Fine Arts Photography, currently works for Anadolu Agency, Turkey’s largest news agency.


The First Place in the Sports Series was given to Pavel Volkov, an award-winning Russian photographer who has worked on many projects related to problems in Russian society. In the winning series, the photographer captures the sheer grit of Alexei Talai who lost both his legs and arms in an accident. After surviving the accident Alexei took to sport for rehabilitation and as a psychological means of self-acceptance. He now holds several world and European Paralympic awards.


Talai’s Story by Pavel Volkov (Russia)

Sports, Series category, First place/stenincontest

The photo of Alexei Talai training in the swimming pool captures the calm and yet determined visage and body of the Paralympic sportsman enveloped by the lyrical movement of water.


Talai’s Story by Pavel Volkov (Russia)

Sports, Series category, First place/stenincontest

Another portrait of Alexei Talai conveying his self-belief and meditative acceptance of his condition.


Kolkata-based documentary photographer Ayanava Sil was awarded Third Place in the same Sports Series category for his “Kushti” series. A resident of Kolkata, Ayanava’s works have been published and recognized by different global platforms including National Geographic, CNN America, Chiiz Magazine etc. He has also won the News Times award, Eye Win award and Golden Orchid International Photography award and has been exhibited in film and photography festivals. The use of black and white in the series evocatively captures the simplicity and hardy life of the pehlwans who continue the tradition in Indian wrestling that was developed during the Mughal Empire and has now become a sub-culture in many parts of North India.


Kushti by Ayanava Sil (India)

Sports, Series category, Third place/stenincontest

A typical morning in an open Akhara.


Kushti by Ayanava Sil (India)

Sports, Series category, Third place/stenincontest

Pehlwans practice Kushti under the tutelage of their seniors.


Another Indian, Chandan Khanna, won the Jury Honorable Mention award in the Sports Series category for his work on a self-taught heavyweight boxer, Ducan Delian. Chandan is photojournalist working with Agence France-Presse based in Haiti. In the series he captures Delian’s life, who was not allowed to fight in boxing tournaments; he feels betrayed and has been compelled to earn a living by giving private boxing classes.


Ducas Delian taking a break at training session by Chandan Khanna (India)

Sports, Series category, Jury Honorable Mention/stenincontest


In the “My Planet” Single category, Kolkata-based photographer, Sumit Sanyal, earned the First Place and the Special Prize given by Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG). Sumit has a Diploma in Photography from the National Academy of Photography in Kolkata. His works have been featured in several exhibitions and publications and currently works as a stringer photographer for Anadolu Agency. Describing his work, he writes that a wall that once sheltered the pump from the waves has been destroyed by erosion. Tidal flooding has increased due to the rise in the sea level, causing extensive damage to the island and the inhabitants have been steadily losing their land.


Living on the Edge by Sumit Sanyal (India)

My Planet, Single image category, First place/stenincontest

A man collects water from a hand pump on Mousuni Island, Sundarband, while huge tidal waves roll in.


In an interview to Sputnik, Sumit spoke about the importance of his work, “Mousuni Island which is merely 70-80 kilometers away from Kolkata will disappear one day. It feels like documenting history through my lens . . . . Mass level migration is underway from these places as livelihoods have been lost due to natural disasters they witness every few months.” Kolkata has started feeling the impact of climate change. Last year in June, the city witnessed the devastating cyclone Amphan which killed over a hundred people left thousands homeless. Interestingly, during Durga Puja festivities some idol makers chose devastation caused by cyclone Amphan as the theme for the pandals.


Another young Indian photographer, Shubham Kothavale, a college student based in Kohlapur, won the Jury Honorable Mention for the “My Planet” Single category for his stunning photograph of the Pink Festival in Kohlapur, Maharashtra.


The Pink Festival (Kohlapur) by Shubham Kothavale (India)

My Planet, Single image category, Jury Honorable Mention/stenincontest


The capital of a disappearing world by Sergie Parshukov (Russia)

My Planet, Series category, First place/stenincontest

A woman walks her dog against the background of the abandoned Vorkuta village of Rudnik.


The “My Planet” Series award was won by Sergie Parshukov, a Russian documentary photographer who freelances with TASS News Agency and explores social issues and everyday life in his personal capacity. In his series, he depicts life in Vorkuta, once the home to one of largest Gulag camps, to which prisoners from all over the world were exiled. It is now a city with the world’s most rapidly shrinking population with the villages turned into ghost towns.


In the category “Portrait: Hero of Our Time” the Single First Place was won by Russian photojournalist Yury Smityuk for his work on Pavel Kulemeyev, a researcher at Wrangel Island Nature Reserve in the Russian Arctic in the difficult conditions of his “natural habitat”. Since 2018, Pavel has been working not only as a scientist and inspector at the reserve but also as a polar explorer. The First Place Series award for the same category was given to Italian documentary photographer, Danillo Garcia Di Meo, who was also awarded a Special Prize by China Daily. Danillo’s work captured the lives of young people of the Italian city of l’Aquila that had experienced a massive earthquake a decade ago, leaving many people homeless. Quatrani is the local term for “youngsters" in l'Aquila. The youngsters, who have now turned eighteen years of age, have managed to find a sense of belonging in this “Forbidden City” and have developed strong bonds of friendship. Danilo Garcia Di Meo currently works with several NGO and press agencies and received the Grand Prix at the Andrei Stenin Contest, and awards at MIFA and TIFA.


Wrangel Island by Yury Smityuk (Russia)

Portrait. A Hero of Our Time, Single image category, First place/stenincontest

Portrait of researcher Pavel Kulemeyey in Wrangel Island in his “natural habitat”.


Quatraini (Youngsters) by Danillo Garcia Di Meo (Italy)

Portrait. A Hero of Our Time, Series category, First place/stenincontest

The photo shows Enrico with close friend Emma.


Independent Indian artist and photographer Santanu Dey won the Jury Honourable Mention award for the “Portrait” category for his series “Bahurupi” that documents the Bediya tribe who reside in the eastern and northern parts of India. Among the lowest in the social hierarchy, the Bediya were an erstwhile nomadic tribe. Prohibited from taking farming or other high-profile jobs and only allowed to do menial jobs, they chose to dress up as mythological characters to eke out a living. To survive they travelled across India earning through their performances, transforming themselves into popular mythological characters using make-up, dress and jewellery. The tribe is perhaps India’s earliest performance artists, but unfortunately, as Santanu says, “they are all but forgotten today”. Santanu is a visual artist cum independent photographer based in Kolkata and was educated as a painter in the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata. He works on the intersection of art and documentary making with mythology, socio-cultural and political narratives.


Nonichura Chowdhury Byadh as Lord Krishna by Santanu Dey

Portrait. A Hero of Our Time, Series category, Jury Honorable Mention/stenincontest


Shyamsunder Chowdhury Byadh as Nagraj by Santanu Dey

Portrait. A Hero of Our Time, Series category, Jury Honorable Mention/stenincontest


As can be perceived from the winning entries of the Andrei Stein Contest 2020, it is heartening to see so much talent among the young photographers and their genuine concern and commitment for the environment and socio-political issues. The contest has truly achieved its objective of promoting and encouraging young photographers to strive for professional perfection. Limitation of space has prevented me to feature the other winning entries, all of which without exception have demonstrated high standards, an eye for compositional aesthetics, and a mind and heart for documenting humanism.


The contest is now accepting entries for the year 2021. The contest would be familiar to many interested in photography in India since the organizers have been promoting it actively in the country. The Stenin Contest exhibited the winning 2018 entries at AIFACS, New Delhi, in February 2019, while the exhibition of the 2019 winners was held in November-December 2019 also at AIFACS. Indians Amit Moulick, Ayanava Sil and Santanu Dey had been among last year’s winners.


The jury for the 2021 contest include the following: photojournalist Alberto Prina, founder of the photo-association Gruppo Fotografico Progetto Immagine (1989) and the artistic director of an exhibit space close to Milan; Ruth Eichhorn, a freelance photo editor and curator and former Director of Photography for the German GEO magazine; Russian photojournalist Yury Kozyrev, who has worked in major armed conflicts around the world, including the two Chechnya wars; and Valery Melnikov, a special correspondent of Rossiya Segodnya and the winner of many national and international photo contests.

The last day for submission of entries of the 2021 Stenin Contest is 28 February 2021. So, do spread the word!

(All images are courtesy of the respective photographers/stenincontest.)


Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.


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