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How to apply for international photo contests and win? The experience of Roman Pylypiy, Olena Hrom and Oleksandr Rupeta

Doctors operate on a Ukrainian soldier. Photo by Roman Pylypiy

Any participation in a photo contest, regardless of the results, contributes to the professional growth of a photographer. In the case of Ukrainian photographers, it is also an opportunity to tell an international audience about the Russian-Ukrainian war and its consequences, and to be heard. This year, Roman Pylypiy was named Photojournalist of the Year in the 2024 Photojournalist of the Year - National category by the National Press Photographers Association, Olena Hrom became the main winner of the Xposure International Photography Awards in the United Arab Emirates, where Oleksandr Rupeta also won the Independent Freelance Photojournalist Award. How did Ukrainian documentary filmmakers manage to collect these international awards?

Providing medical care to a wounded soldier. Photo by Roman Pylypiy

Roman Pilipey

Documentary filmmaker Roman Pilipey won first place in the prestigious nomination for National Photojournalist of the Year. He submitted a portfolio of 40 works he made for Getty Images and AFP. The photographer worked on the pictures during 2023. All of them are about war.

"About the wounded, about the rehabilitation of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. This story was called 'Healing Wounds'. I also filed a story about the burials of soldiers, civilians and children called "Grief and Loss". This is what every Ukrainian is living through now. People are dying every day. I also added a story from Kherson about the consequences of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station explosion. The fourth story showed the life of Ukrainians under constant shelling, with photos collected from different parts of Ukraine," says Roman.

Roman believes that he won first place for his well-formed portfolio, because it is the integrity of all the photo stories that wins. He also emphasises that great attention should be paid to the texts.

"It is worth telling about the characters depicted in the photo. Where appropriate, you can add some statistics to show the scale of the problem. As a rule, judges start looking at the text in the final stages to delve deeper into the story," says Roman.  

Hrushevskoho Street during the Revolution of Dignity. Kyiv, 2014. Photo by Roman Pylypiy

Roman constantly participates in various photo competitions, and this is his second victory in the National Press Photographers Association. In 2014, his photo from the Revolution of Dignity took third place in the single category. He believes that each submission is still an experience where you can learn from your own mistakes: "When someone else wins, I always look at and analyse their work, their approach to portfolio formation and the textual component."

Roman reminds us that the war in Ukraine has been going on for 10 years, and the third year of the full-scale invasion has already begun, which is why we need to continue to draw the world's attention to the events in our country. For him, winning photo contests or simply participating is the first chance to remind the international audience that "the war is ongoing, and it is very far from being over".

The burial of the famous Ukrainian commander of the Da Vinci Wolves battalion, Dmytro Kotsiubaylo. Photo by Roman Pylypiy

"Of course, any recognition is also a motivation to work harder. It's like an encouragement. But I believe that photo contests are not a measure of talent or achievement, it's all subjective. Very interesting projects worthy of awards don't win every year," says Roman..  

Olena Grom 

The Xposure International Photography Awards is the world's largest film and photography festival, where Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Olena Grom won the main prize for her project "Stolen Spring". The organisers chose two of Olena's photographs for the exhibition, but one of them was awarded the main prize.

The photo shows Diana from Borodyanka in the winter of 2023. It was for this work that Olena Hrom received the main prize at the Xposure International Photography Awards.

Olena Hrom lives in Bucha and works in Irpin. The war landscape has become her reality and everyday life. She has created a series of photographs in historical dialogue with the images of Polish photographer Michael Nash, who used a decorative background to disguise the ruins of Warsaw during the Second World War in 1945-1946.

"The heroes of my photographs are women who became victims of Russian aggression. The occupation continued, and in the spring, people who survived this tragic period did not notice how spring had passed, how chestnuts and lilies of the valley blossomed, and birds arrived. "They lost not only their homes, loved ones, jobs, health, but also a part of their lives," explains Olena Grom. "Each photo is a personal tragedy, but it is also a life-affirming story of a survivor. It is a hope that Ukraine will rise from the ruins."

Awarding ceremony for Elena Grom at the Xposure Photography Award 2024. Photo by Emirates News Agency

The international photography and film awards are open to photographers of all levels, from amateurs to professionals. The Xposure International Photography Awards 2023-2024 was organised by the Sharjah Government Media Bureau and received more than 25,000 applications from 190 countries, including China, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Egypt. "It wasn't difficult to apply for the competition, the usual procedure: bio, photo upload, project description," says Olena.

The jury members paid special attention to photos that raised topical global issues such as war, migration, ecology, feminism, and racial conflicts.

"The topic of the war in Ukraine was well covered by photographers from Ukraine and other countries. I am very glad that through my photographs I was able to talk about the war and bring this topic to the forefront in the UAE. This is an important step in cultural diplomacy," says Olena. "Almost all the top UAE media covered the festival and wrote that Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qasimi awarded the main prize to a Ukrainian photographer for a photo that tells about the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

The local media outlet Emirates News Agency wrote about the Ukrainian woman's victory: "The main prize went to Olena Grom from Ukraine for her emotionally captivating photo. This deeply moving piece commanded the respect and attention of the jury, testifying to the photographer's ability to capture resilience and hope."

Olena believes that cultural events such as festivals and exhibitions create social solidarity and cohesion. "During the full-scale war, we could all feel that culture is truly the second front. Presenting Ukraine to the world is a huge challenge and responsibility," she emphasises. 

Olexander Rupeta 

The documentary filmmaker Oleksandr Rupeta won the Best Independent Freelance Photojournalist nomination at the Xposure Photography Award 2024 for his series "Other Days of Life".

Exhibition of Oleksandr Rupeta at the Xposure Photography Award 2024. Photo by Oleksandr Rupeta

"The photos in the series are collected from various reports over the course of about a year. I chose the photos so that the series looked harmonious and coherent together. The idea was to tell about the war from a slightly different perspective, so that you could feel the author's point of view, not just a statement of fact," explains Oleksandr.

Seven year old girl Anya, evacuated from Bakhmut to the nearest town, hugs a toy dog donated by volunteers in her new home. Donetsk region. Photo by Oleksandr Rupeta

He believes that winning competitions is subjective, the number of prizes is limited, and with a large number of projects, you have to reject something that is no less well made. However, he emphasises, like his colleagues, that this is an opportunity to talk about the war in Ukraine.

This is the second time Oleksandr Rupeta has applied for this competition: "The first time was a few years ago, when I went through several stages of selection, but did not make it to the nominees." To take part in the Xposure Photography Award, you need to have a journalist's certificate. He recommends preparing a description for the series that explains both the photo and the choice of category. "As far as I know from other competitions, a lot of attention is paid to the accompanying text at the final stages of selection," Oleksandr emphasises.

We would like to remind you that UAPF continues to support creative ideas of photographers and promote the active development of documentary filmmakers. Applications for The Aftermath Project grants are being accepted until 25 March. Co-founder of The Aftermath Project Sarah Terry, together with photojournalist Joseph Sivenkyi, who won in 2022, held a joint ZOOM meeting for Ukrainian photographers, where they talked about the peculiarities of applying for the competition and shared life hacks on how to present your story convincingly so that it wins. The non-profit organisation offers photographers from all over the world a $25,000 grant to implement a documentary project about the consequences of military conflict.



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