By Donald R. Winslow
Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu, 29, a freelance photojournalist born in Barcelona who now splits her time between Spain and Brooklyn, NY, is the winner of the 2006 NPPA-Nikon Documentary Sabbatical Grant. Sanfeliu is a fresh new face on the documentary photography scene, having been involved with photography since she was a teenager but only pursuing it professionally for the last five years.
Her winning project is “Life on the Block,” an exploration of the mental and physical boundaries on the lives of young Puerto Rican woman who live in America. The award is funded by a grant from Nikon Inc. and is administered by the National Press Photographers Association.
"Two things really helped her entry stand out,” said Joe Elbert, one of the grant’s judges who picked Sanfeliu’s essay last weekend in Washington, DC. “Adriana has an emotional investment in her project, and the ‘sweat equity’ put her over the top. Too often, photographs are more about the photographer than their subjects, and Adriana hasn't fallen into this trap. Her images celebrate each subject, and you're struck with a series of wonderful short stories.” Elbert is assistant managing editor of photography for The Washington Post.
“When I got the message that I won, I could not believe it,” Sanfeliu said. “I feel very moved. It’s been a very lonely journey for me doing this work. I’ve had wonderful support from teachers along the way, but I feel that I really grew as a photographer with these photographs, and in understanding what documentary photography is to me and how I feel about it, and these people that I’ve been working with, these women in Harlem.”
The grant comes with a $15,000 stipend so that working photographers can afford to take time to work on their essays unencumbered by daily assignments.
"This grant arrives at an important time," Sanfeliu said today. "I was weighing the financial concern of doing work of this nature. The award allows me the space to develop the work at a deeper level. I believe in the importance of this kind of work because it brings awareness to issues that are right in our back yard, the work bridges our communities. I'm thankful for these kinds of awards."
Three times since 2000 the grant has gone to a photojournalist based in Brooklyn: Sanfeliu this year, and Brenda Ann Kenneally in 2005 and 2000. “There’s some original air here,” Sanfeliu said of Brooklyn.
This year's winner earned degrees in art history and graphic design in Barcelona and came to New York in 2001 to dedicate herself to photography full-time and to study at the International Center of Photography. "Through a documentary photography class I found a subject that captured my heart, passion, eye, and mind," she said. "I began a long-term project about the challenging and shifting lives of Puerto Rican women living in Spanish Harlem. The inner landscape of family life, particularly the trials of women, has been a world that has long fascinated me. After a three-year journey time has allowed the clichés to slowly fade away and awareness to build about the complexity of these women's lives. My photography is a bridge that overcomes boundaries of culture and language."
About her choice to pursue documentary photography, Sanfeliu told News Photographer today, "Bearing witness to people's daily life helps to inform and educate, bringing awareness that stretches our collective mental boundaries, which in turn encourages and enables social change, growth, and wholeness."
The NPPA-Nikon Sabbatical Grant competition was judged at The Washington Post by Elbert and by James Wallace, the photography director for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Elizabeth Krist, an illustrations editor at National Geographic, under the guidance of Bill Luster, the NPPA-Nikon Sabbatical Grant chairperson. Luster is a photojournalist for the Louisville Courier-Journal and a past president of NPPA, and has volunteered for many years as the grant’s administrator.
"Adriana's photos showed that she had already made a significant investment in her proposed project," Wallace said. "It helped that she had a well-defined idea and a well-defined community to work in where she obviously felt comfortable. Because of this, she was able to demonstrate a level of intimacy with her subjects that was visible in only a handful of the other proposals."
Kenneally's 2005 NPPA-Nikon Sabbatical Grant was for “Legal Guardian: The Long Arm of the Law Reaches Inside America’s Most Vulnerable Families.” Kenneally was the first two-time winner of the honor. She also won in 2000 for “Money, Power, Respect: Real Life Stories from the Hip-Hop Generation,” about the legacy of drug use from generation to generation in her Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood.
Freelancer Jon Lowenstein won the honor in 2003 for “From Guerrero to Gringolandia and Back: Day Labor, Family, and the New Global Economy,” and Eugene Richards won in 2002 for “Stepping Through The Ashes,” a tribute to the people lost in the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11. John Ficara was the 2001 winner for his documentary work on the disappearance of black farmers in America, a study that began as a Newsweek assignment while he was on staff at the magazine. More about the past winners and their projects can be seen here.