5 Questions for Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

Sara Lewkowicz is a native New Yorker pursuing a master’s degree in visual communication from Ohio University in Athens and received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has won several grants and awards, including the 2013 Alexia Student Grant and the 2013 Ville de Perpignan Remi Ochlik Award, 2014 World Press Photo 1st prize for Contemporary Issues stories and she has been named the 2013 College Photographer of the Year by POYi.

She can be found: on the Web | on Instagram | on Twitter.

1. Many younger photographers struggle with the decision to make a picture under tumultuous circumstances — what advice do you have for them in terms of making the picture or knowing when not to?

I think that it’s very much a question of trusting your gut. There is no perfect solution, and when you are photographing in tumultuous situations, you are undertaking a risk. You have to walk into it knowing that. After that, it’s really a matter of paying attention to your surroundings, to the non-verbal cues of your subjects…it’s about reading people. You have to learn the difference between a real danger signal and your own social anxiety. It can take time, and it also involves a decent amount of self-knowledge. 

2. How has the widespread publication of your domestic violence story impacted your career? Has it provided an opening to any new opportunities you didn’t think about before the story? Or any new direction that you hope to take your work moving forward? 

It seems almost silly to try to come up with an answer to this, because it’s like my career before this story and after this story are two separate entities. I was always involved in the photo community. I went to workshops and conferences, I have lots of friends who are photographers who I’ve known for years. But doing this story opened up a world for me that I hadn’t even considered possible before, shooting for magazines like Time and Stern. I’ve been awarded several grants and I received the Remi Ochlik Award in Perpignan, and I’ve been on the Emerging Talent roster at Getty Reportage for the past year. It’s been pretty incredible. 

The truth is, yes, it’s partially serendipity (albeit a really screwed up kind of serendipity), given the scenario I found myself in. But that’s photojournalism in general. It’s all kind of screwed up serendipity. You have to go out in the world and put yourself in situations that lead to photos. It won’t happen sitting on your couch thinking about it, that’s for sure. I’m not sure I even have gotten a grasp of all the opportunities that are out there now, but I think the important thing is that doing this story has given me the confidence to go after those opportunities, and go out and pursue more stories, bigger stories. I crippled myself for a *long* time because I was insecure about my shooting. I just felt like I wasn’t good enough and would never be. That was a big mistake, feeling like being a good shooter was more about natural talent and ability than straight up busting your ass to get better.

If I could tell other young photographers one thing, it’s to stop looking over your shoulder at the person next to you. Stop psyching yourself out of shooting because you think you aren’t good enough. I spent years doing that, and it’s as absurd as it is common. Try comparing your work to itself…look at how you progress from one year to the next, and use that technique to discover where you’ve improved, what areas you need to work on, and which subjects excite you. Learn to identify what blows your skirt up in the back, and understand that it’s a process, and a long one at that. You don’t have to be the brightest shining star in your junior year of college. Tons of amazing photographers don’t hit their stride until their 30s, 40s, sometimes 50s. Hell, Salgado didn’t *start* shooting until he was in his 30s. 

3. Crazy to think you’re most defining work was done at such a seemingly young age and point in your career. How do you move past that story now? Or do you?

I’m not that young, I’m 31, haha! Compared to some of the talented undergrads at OU like Ian Bates, I’m an old lady! I’ve been shooting for about ten years, so it really doesn’t feel like it’s *that* early in my career. I’ve struggled for a long time to do this, and wasn’t always sure how I would make it happen, but I’m glad I stuck with it. 

I think that there’s always a jumping off point for someone’s career, something that kind of “puts them on the map.” This is what “put me on the map,” so-to-speak, but as I’ve been telling people, I am not walking around expecting everything I do to be as big as this. It’s possible for a piece of work to be more *way* significant than it’s creator. I’m not a significant creator at this point, but someday further down the line, I’d like to be able to consider myself one. I’m still working on Maggie’s story, and probably always kind of will be (I just got off the phone with her, actually). But I’ll do lots of stories in my life, this won’t be the last thing I do, and it won’t be the last project I put my whole heart into. It’s just the beginning of a new phase in my career, and I’m really excited to keep going and keep working. 

4. You finished your undergrad at UNC a few years ago, and then were trying to freelance in Baltimore for a bit. Can you walk us through the decision to go back to school, and what that’s done for you (good and bad)?

I had been regularly freelancing at the Baltimore Sun for a few years after completing internships at two other places (Inside Lacrosse Magazine and Patuxent Publishing Company). I had gotten that gig by basically cold calling the editor and asking if I could show him my work, and luckily, they had no staffer living in my county in Maryland, so I got all the assignments for that area. Unfortunately, the bureau I was working at shut down, which essentially meant I had no more work. Eventually, after talking it over with a number of photographers who I was close with, I decided to apply to the graduate program at OU. Going back to school presented me with a lot of opportunities that were fantastic; the time and freedom to spend all my time working on stuff I was interested in, to go out and explore a totally unfamiliar landscape, to get constant feedback. It also gave me the opportunity to apply for all sorts of grants that simply aren’t available (or much harder to come by) as a professional. That said, my first year at OU was simultaneously the best and the worst year of my life. I learned so much, but it was incredibly difficult for a lot of reasons, both professional and personal. It’s not easy to return to a school environment at nearly 30 when you’ve been out of school for eight years, and I spent more time weeping quietly to myself than I should probably admit to publicly. But I recently read an interview with Shaena Mallett, who wrote this about sadness: “It’s only in loss that we create the space within ourselves for growth – in sadness we carve the depth of our wellspring of joy.” I was really, really sad for a lot of that year. But I grew a lot, and for that, I’m grateful. 

5. What’s next for Sara Lewkowicz?

Because of winning College Photographer of the Year, I’m going to be interning for National Geographic this summer, so I’m getting together my story ideas for that, and in the fall I’ll return to OU to finish working on my degree. I’ve also been asked to sign on as a featured contributor with Getty Reportage, which I’m very excited about, and I’m applying for a Fulbright Grant. Beyond that, I really can’t say. I’m kind of just taking it 12 months at a time at this point, and seeing where I land next. 

Sol Neelman will be happy to know that I have finally begun Season 3 of The Wire, which I’m told is the best season of all. 

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