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Want To See Inspiring Pix? Check Out These Award-Winning Photos

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim and perform rescues on Oct. 25, 2016 in the Indian Ocean at Muyuni, Zanzibar. "It was phenomenal to watch their facial expressions and body language shift from total fear and utter trepidation to peaceful, and then to what ultimately revealed itself as confidence and joy," says photographer Anna Boyiazis, who won one of this year's awards.
Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim and perform rescues on Oct. 25, 2016 in the Indian Ocean at Muyuni, Zanzibar. "It was phenomenal to watch their facial expressions and body language shift from total fear and utter trepidation to peaceful, and then to what ultimately revealed itself as confidence and joy," says photographer Anna Boyiazis, who won one of this year's awards.

Girls learning how to swim in the Indian Ocean on Zanzibar's coast — a beautiful and calm image. It's also striking if you know the backstory: For these girls — who for years were prohibited from going in the water by their conservative culture — learning to swim is a revolutionary act. They are not only acquiring a potentially life-saving skill but also gaining access to a new space.

"It was phenomenal to watch their facial expressions and body language shift from total fear and utter trepidation to peaceful, and then to what ultimately revealed itself as confidence and joy," says photographer Anna Boyiazis, who was chosen as one of the Leica Women Foto Project winners for her work documenting the swimming lessons.

The contest, in its second year, gives a platform to female photographers like Boyiazis who chronicle long-term, change-making projects.

"These artists engaged with the communities they were documenting in a respectful way, with the intent of empowering the young people in their images," said Elizabeth Krist, contest judge and former National Geographic photo editor.

NPR spoke to the three winners — Matika Wilbur, Karen Zusman and Anna Boyiazis — who expounded on their work and intentions, and to Krist, who gave us a peek into the magic of these images.

Swim instructor Chema snaps her fingers as she disappears underwater on Dec. 28, 2016 in Nungwi, Zanzibar. "It was fulfilling to photograph alongside a group of women swim instructors who are supporting positive change for women and girls in the archipelago," says photographer Anna Boyiazis.
/ Anna Boyiazis
Swim instructor Chema snaps her fingers as she disappears underwater on Dec. 28, 2016, in Nungwi, Zanzibar. "It was fulfilling to photograph alongside a group of women swim instructors who are supporting positive change for women and girls in the archipelago," says photographer Anna Boyiazis.

Finding Freedom in the Water

When Boyiazis first visited Zanzibar many years before she started this project, the local people told her, "Girls don't swim" — to which she replied, pointing to herself, "This one does!"

Years later, Boyiazis learned from a fellow journalist that a nonprofit organization called The Panje Project was teaching children in Zanzibar to swim in an effort to stop the high number of drownings. The organization helped break the "girls don't swim" taboo by providing burkinis — a swimsuit that covers the entire body except face, hands and feet — so the girls could be in the water while following their culture's dress code.

"It was fulfilling to photograph alongside a group of women swim instructors who are supporting positive change for women and girls in the archipelago," says Boyiazis.

"By encouraging long-term cultural change — the acceptance of women learning to swim in an Islamic community — Anna Boyiazis's project Finding Freedom in the Water could literally save lives, says Krist.


Elena, age 9, lives in Harlem with her mother and grandmother. Zusman made Brighton Beach the backdrop of her project: photographing kids of color and then taking note of how they reacted to their photos. The idea was to give the children the chance to respond and make the work more collaborative, "feeding on each other's energy."
/ Karen Zusman
Elena, age 9, lives in Harlem with her mother and grandmother. Zusman made Brighton Beach the backdrop of her project: photographing kids of color and then taking note of how they reacted to their photos. The idea was to give the children the chance to respond and make the work more collaborative, "feeding on each other's energy."

The Super Power Of Me

During the summer of 2020, Karen Zusman rode with a Black Lives Matter bicycle group and photographed onlookers' responses. She was particularly struck by how youth of color responded to the protest bike ride.

When the group's route stopped in Brighton Beach, New York, there was something about the place that held her attention. She made the beach the backdrop of her next project: photographing kids of color and then running a poetry workshop with the same kids (Zusman has an MFA in poetry) where they get to write poem-captions to go with their pictures.

Bubba and his nephew, William, ages 9 and 3. Bubba lives in Brownsville with his mother, sister and 3-year-old brother, Legacy. "It's my camera and my framing, but it's their spirit, gestures, intelligence, creativity, confidence, and most important, their strength that gives the images their potency," says Zusman.
/ Karen Zusman
Bubba and his nephew, William, ages 9 and 3. Bubba lives in Brownsville with his mother, sister and 3-year-old brother, Legacy. "It's my camera and my framing, but it's their spirit, gestures, intelligence, creativity, confidence, and most important, their strength that gives the images their potency," says Zusman.

The idea was to give the children the chance to respond and make the work more collaborative, "feeding on each other's energy."

"It's my camera and my framing, but it's their spirit, gestures, intelligence, creativity, confidence and, most important, their strength that gives the images their potency," says Zusman.

Ultimately, she says, she hopes to stage the project as a large-scale outdoor exhibition.

For Zusman, it's not only what she is doing for the kids, but the positive effect they've had on her. "They've taught me how to smile more. To trust myself more. To go for it. I mean, really go for it. It's as if my own powers have been revealed in the process of celebrating theirs."


"Running has been my absolute passion and my stability. [M]y track coach told me I would just be another stupid Indian runner with no chance in the real running world. I let those words motivate and push me until I earned the fastest times in the school," says Hannah Tomeo of the Colville, Yakima, Nez Perce, Sioux and Samoan Nations.
/ Matika Wilbur
"Running has been my absolute passion and my stability. My track coach told me I would just be another stupid Indian runner with no chance in the real running world. I let those words motivate and push me until I earned the fastest times in the school," says Hannah Tomeo of the Colville, Yakama, Nez Perce, Sioux and Samoan nations.

Project 562

Matika Wilbur, a visual storyteller and licensed primary school educator from the Swinomish and Tulalip peoples of coastal Washington, has spent a decade traveling to more than 400 tribal nations.

Through her research as both a photographer and educator, Wilbur found that many state history standards fail to cover Native Americans post-1900 — an oversight she says is "damaging to native and non-native youth."

What little documentation of contemporary native communities that does exist is often "poverty porn," says Wilbur. And that's not what she wants her students — or any students — to think of Native American culture.

She hopes her continued work through her Project 562 — dedicated to photographing the more than 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States — will help inspire native peoples and counteract problematic stereotypes.

,Wilson Mungnak and Oilver Tusagvik, Inupiaq brothers from Nome Alaska, were the first to summit North America's highest peak, Mount Denali, in the 2019 climbing season. They recall walking into the ranger station to register to climb and being met with sideways glances, "Are you sure?" the ranger asked. Photographer Matika Wilbur hopes her project will "change the way we see Native America."
/ Matika Wilbur
Wilson Mungnak and Oilver Tusagvik, Inupiaq brothers from Nome Alaska, were the first to summit North America's highest peak, Denali, in the 2019 climbing season. They recall walking into the ranger station to register to climb and being met with sideways glances, "Are you sure?" the ranger asked. Photographer Matika Wilbur hopes her project will "change the way we see Native America."

"I remember thinking: I'm showing contemporary representation of indigenous people to my students that is traumatizing them. And I'm not doing the work. I can't be a part of the problem that's causing harm to the students. My job is to inspire them. My job is to give them hope," says Wilbur.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 2, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier photo caption misspelled the name of the Yakama Nation as Yakima. And another earlier caption misstated the name of North America's highest peak, Denali, as Mount Denali.