What does it take to be named one of the most courageous photojournalists on Earth?
You can ask Stephanie Sinclair, who this week will be honored with the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award, an honor granted each year by the International Women’s Media Foundation to a single photographer.
Sinclair, a National Geographic and Pulitzer-winning photographer, is known for getting access to the most sensitive areas of the world to photograph the lack of human rights or people’s quest for equality. She often uses empathy to take compelling images of vulnerable people. She most recently photographed the face of albinism, and the marginalized people who live with it.
But Sinclair’s stand-out work is her 15-year long series, Too Young to Wed, that has taken her all over the world chronicling the stunting effects of young girls who are forced to marry too young, and the physical and emotional damage inflicted on child brides. Sinclair has visited many of the 50 countries where child marriage occurs and witnessed the ways the practice cuts short adolescence for almost 40,000 girls each day. The marriages force girls as young as nine into adult roles (including becoming pregnant), and isolates them from social interaction.
(See Sinclair's child bride photographs that were published in National Geographic.)
The judges found that Sinclair stood out not only for her deep and intimate portraits, but for her willingness to return to scenes of horrific suffering and atrocity to capture images to help raise awareness around the world.
“Imagine the courage it takes day after day to listen to the stories of the horror young girls are experiencing,” says Elisa Lees Munoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation. “So it really is the courage to take this on as your life's work, and to listen to these stories and make them public.”
Two other photographers will be recognized with honorable mentions: Louisa Gouliamaki for compelling storytelling of the European refugee crisis, and Nicole Tung, whose work has given voice and visibility to civilians caught in conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
The response to Sinclair's child bride work has overwhelmed her. With her advocacy, she helped start an NGO to work and raise money to curtail the practice, and in 2012, she co-produced a documentary, Too Young to Wed. The organization has since partnered with the United Nations Population Fund and other nonprofits to help prevent the narrowing of young girl’s lives and opportunities.
The International Women’s Media Foundation grants the award each year in honor of Anja Niedringhaus, a German photojournalist who was killed in Afghanistan in 2014. Niedringhaus had won the Courage in Journalism award for her work in the middle east after the September 11 attacks. The award was renamed after her after she was fatally shot at a security checkpoint south of Kabul.
Sinclair only met Niedringhaus in passing in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor does she take the same approach as Niedringhaus toward illuminating injustice. Rather than work in the most dangerous war zones and areas of conflict, Sinclair’s approach has been to travel to—still very dangerous—places that are rarely seen to meet people who are rarely photographed.
With that approach comes a departure from the traditional journalistic act of simply observing. The award acknowledges Sinclair’s courage to morph into an advocate—a person who uses her camera to fight for justice, equality, and opportunity.
“Stephanie is not by any stretch of the imagination an objective photographer,” says Sarah Leen, director of photography for National Geographic. “She is a passionate person when she sees injustice, she gets angry and then she gets busy creating change."