Presenting the Winners of the Focus on the Story Portrait Awards 2021

It didn’t take long for Italian photojournalist Alessio Paduano, who had been covering the impact of Covid-19 on his hometown of Naples since the beginning of the pandemic, to realize that the disease was taking not only a physical toll but an emotional one.

Back in April, Paduano told CNN: “People are so scared that they almost don’t look you in the face … This virus is causing us to lose some humanity … People no longer want to smile and talk. Everyone is suspicious of everyone.”

Paduano tapped into the coronavirus’ psychological impact in his portrait,”The Social Stigma,” which was selected as the overall winner in the Focus on the Story Portrait Awards 2021.

His winning portrait is of a 33-year-old man who contracted Covid-19 but did not want anyone to know because he feared how others would react.

“The current coronavirus pandemic is causing social stigmatization and discriminatory behavior against anyone who has perceived having been in contact with the virus,” Paduano wrote in his submission.

The six-member jury selected Paduano’s photo from a field of nearly 700 entries and from 40 images that made it to the final round. Four of the jurors listed Paduano’s portrait in their top five and all six had it in their top 10.

The first runner-up was German photographer Mirja Maria Thiel for a portrait that was part of a project exploring themes of sexuality and aging. The second runner-up is American photographer Kate Warren for an evocative portrait of a man partially submerged in a river.

As the overall winner, Paduano will receive a $1,000 award, with Thiel receiving $500 and Warren receiving $250. All three images, along with the honorable mentions and select finalists, will be exhibited at the fourth Focus on the Story International Photo Festival in June.

Special thanks to our jurors: Kirth Bobb, Rhonisha Franklin, Kirsten Lewis, Priyanca Rao, Chinelle Rojas and Matt Sayles.

Overall Winner: "Social Stigma"

Alessio Paduano
Naples, Italy |


About this photo: In Italy, which has been particularly hard hit by Covid-19, there is a social stigma that comes with contracting the disease, which has killed nearly 100,000 people in the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Manuel, 33, who contracted Covid-19 in October, says he was afraid to tell people he might have exposed that he had tested positive.

Bio: Alessio is an Italian photographer based in Naples, Italy. Since 2007, he has worked as a contributor to several publications, including Corriere della Sera, Internazionale, la Repubblica, The Guardian, Newsweek, Time and others. He holds a masters in arts degree in photojournalism from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli.  His work has been exhibited in the PAN-Palazzo Arti Napoli in Italy, Castel dell’ Ovo in Italy, FotoLoft gallery in Russia, Biennal of Bibbiena in Italy, Palm Springs Photo Festival in California, and the Tel Aviv Photo Fair.

What the jurors said:

Matt Sayles: “I feel this image perfectly encapsulates the shame and fear around receiving a positive diagnosis of Covid-19. It is the perfect combination of beautiful, haunting, and illustrative.”

Priyanca Rao: “I love a portrait that is not straightforward and makes you wonder. In this portrait the power of photography is strong. It speaks even without showing you everything but rather lets you do the thinking. The wash towel covering his face, the slumped body language and the dramatic lighting builds curiosity as well as empathy towards this man in the picture. This portrait gets even more interesting with the addition of the clothesline and the wooden pin that precariously holds up the wash towel covering his face. It has beautiful eye movement and really makes you pause and wonder about this person, his story and his why’s. I appreciate the process that this photographer went through to make this picture and communicate the feeling of social stigma.”

Rhonisha Franklin: I like this take on a portrait. Everything executed as if his face was actually the focal point. It tells the story of the subject’s desire to remain anonymous but still presenting a well-thought out portrait.”

First Runner Up: "Irene and Günter"

Mirja Maria Thiel
Schwanewede, Germany |


About this photo: An image from Thiel’s series, All This Love, which aims to broaden the social discourse about old age by reflecting love stories, mutual sexual attraction and intimate moments of self-confidence in older couples. Irene, 80, and Günter, 79, are both art enthusiasts and painters who have a very loving connection to their own bodies and each other’s. “God gave us the gift of sexuality,” Günter says.

Bio: Mirja is a German photographer whose longterm work focuses on health challenges like the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the emotional landscape of caregivers, Farewell Sonata (2014 – 2015), and affected individuals, Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (2016 – 2018). With All This Love (2017 – present) she explores the underrepresented topic of eroticism and sexuality in older couples.

All three works have been internationally recognized, among others by the Wellcome Photography Prize (Wellcome Trust), Portrait of Humanity Award/BJP 1854, Photo Oxford Festival in the U.K., and Critical Mass (Photolucida) in the U.S.

What the jurors said:

Kirsten Lewis: “The light in this picture is beautiful and I love the way the shape of the subjects carries our eyes through the frame. For me, the most powerful part of this moment is the normalization of love and sexuality later in life.”

Rao: “This photo evokes a feeling of consensual voyeurism of the moment between an older couple that is not shared much. To see the possibility of the flame burning well into old age is very comforting.”

Sayles: “I love the intimacy and connection of this image, it’s so tender and rare to see.”

Second Runner-up: "Whisper My Sins to Me"

Kate Warren
Williston, Vermont |


About this photo: Musician Pholo Kimbuende cools off in the James River. Kimbuende, a Congolese immigrant, is in an interracial relationship with Warren, who is white. The image reflects on how white supremacy and racial dynamics impacted their relationship in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Warren sees the image as one of reckoning and reparation, healing and rebirth.

Bio: Kate Warren is based in Los Angeles and her native Vermont, where she is currently doing an artist residency on a mountain lake until May 2021. As a queer artist, Kate works to expand how gender is represented for clients and within her personal work. Her work has been recognized with awards from PDN, American Photography 36, and Athens Photo Festival. She was named one of Refinery29’s 30 Under 30, guest lectured at Georgetown University and George Washington University, and was a keynote speaker on feminism and photography during FotoWeekDC and Apple’s StoryMakers Festival.

What the jurors said:

Kirth Bobb: “I read somewhere that water carries memories from eternity, and all bodies of water have converged at least once. I’m not sure if what I read is true, but this photograph reminded me of that bit of information I picked up, and it made me think about the nature of water and how various cultures have used water in their ceremonial practices (see baptisms). Baptism is full immersion and confession of one’s sins, as the title suggests, represents a delicate straddle of being both above and underwater. The execution and story did it for me.”

Rao: “This image is so powerful. There is beautiful balance between the negative and positive space shown through air and water. Although his face is tranquil while being submerged in water, the presence of red adds tension to the portrait.”

Honorable Mention

“Ramnath – A Man Who Feeds The Migratory Birds”
© Saurabh Narang | Bergneustadt, Germany

“Masked Women”
© Hadi Dehghanpour | Sabzevar, Iran

“Carmen Y Carmen”
© Karen Zusman | Brooklyn, NY

“Covid 19 Mask”
Mustafa Bilge Satkin | Istanbul, Turkey

© Mea Baráth | Berkenye, Hungary

“Miracle Mud”
© Alain Schroeder | Brussels, Belgium

“Car Boys”
Rebecca Moseman | Purcellville, Virginia

“Who We Fight For”
© Karen Zusman | Brooklyn, NY

Finalists (in random order)