Joseph Sywenkyj

Verses: A Family in Odesa, Ukraine

Baxter St at CCNY Darkroom Residency solo exhibition

Exhibition: May 9 – May 25, 2013

Opening Reception: Thursday, May 9, 6–8pm

Verses, a solo exhibition by 2012 Baxter St at CCNY Darkroom Resident Joseph Sywenkyj, is a project that documents a Ukrainian family living with HIV for the past decade. This exhibition marks the final of four solo exhibitions from the recipients of the 2012 Baxter St at CCNY Darkroom Residency Program.

Joseph Sywenkyj says about this project: “Verses is the story of a family in Odesa, Ukraine. Sasha, Ira, and their daughter Masha are the lead characters in my ongoing documentation. This is not a story of quick change or fast healing. The story progresses slowly, yet captures moments of family life and dynamics that cover a variety of situations and emotions.”

Sasha and Ira were both diagnosed HIV-positive in the late 1990s. Several days after I met them in 2001, Ira gave birth to her sixth child Masha. A year later they were informed of Masha’s HIV-positive status. Ira has had 3 more children since Masha’s birth. Currently 11 children (including 3 grandchildren) live with them in their small home. Their children range in age from 4 to 20 years old.

Masha, who turned 11 years old in August, is their only child who is HIV-positive. Watching her grow is not only a testament to her personal strength, but also a way to observe the program that gives her free antiretroviral therapy, which keeps her healthy and alive. In Sasha’s case, his health has fluctuated over the years even though he receives antiretroviral therapy.

The overall objective of Verses is to highlight family planning issues and the importance of free or inexpensive antiretroviral therapy for HIV-positive people who cannot afford it. This will always remain a central goal. However, the power of this project is that it does not attempt to make sweeping judgments about society and its problems. The power of Verses is that it is a story about family, intimacy, relationships, values, and love and all the anxieties and difficulties that accompany it.

Despite stepped up efforts to fight the disease, Ukraine has one of the fastest growing HIV infection rates in the world and the worst infection rate in Europe. UNAIDS estimates that approximately 350,000 Ukrainians are living with HIV?AIDS and that there have been about 24,000 deaths due to the disease.

According to Dr. Dmitro Donchuk, a Ukrainian infectious disease specialist, in 2010 there were 20,500 new infections of HIV officially registered in Ukraine. Approximately 4,000 of those cases were babies infected with HIV through mother to child transmission, as Masha was 11 years ago.


Joseph Sywenkyj (b. 1978) is an American specializing in documentary photography and photojournalism. In 2003, a year after graduating with honors from the School of Visual Arts in New York, he moved to Ukraine on a Fulbright Grant.
Joseph has worked extensively on assignment throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, as well as in Africa and the Middle East. His photographs have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums including the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland; Les Rencontres d’Arles in Arles, France; The Richard B. Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC and the United Nations Visitor’s Lobby in New York. His photographs have appeared in various publications such as The New York Times, Conde Nast Portfolio, Departures, GQ, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and many others.
In 2002 Joseph attended the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. Photo District News named him one of the 30 Emerging Photographers to watch in 2003. He was twice a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography in 2009 and 2011 and was also a finalist for a 2010 Hasselblad Masters Award. Kodak Professional has sponsored the creation of his work in Ukraine as well as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2012 he was awarded a Baxter St at CCNY Darkroom Residency.