For the first-ever AFAR Travel Photography Awards, we joined forces with LensCulture and United Airlines to highlight the diverse and creative ways photographers celebrate the world. More than 20,000 submissions came in representing all genres of travel photography, from street scenes to wildlife. AFAR’s highly respected panel of photography judges selected the winners, whose work we’re proud to present here.

First-place winners receive a pair of United Polaris International Business Class tickets, and all winners receive a cash prize and publication in a 2019 issue of AFAR. 

Photo series winners

1st place: “Circus Love” by Stephanie Gengotti

What began as an assignment from an Italian magazine to take portraits of two pairs of circus performers evolved into “Circus Love,” a multiyear project by Italian-French photographer Stephanie Gengotti. “When I discovered this world, I fell in love with what I saw,” she says. She soon became immersed in the realm of Europe’s nontraditional circus entertainers, whose acts rely less on animal tricks and high-wire stunts than on arts such as mime and dance. Gengotti sometimes lived and traveled with the nomadic families, helping with chores, cooking, and caring for the children, and taking photos during downtime.

She hoped “to show images that could explain love, freedom, and poetry,” which she considers symbolic of the circus lifestyle. Gengotti’s work stood out for its composition and its intimacy, evidence of how close she became to each family. “Stephanie’s strength was that each image was almost a self-contained anecdote,” says judge Brian Finke, “but together they became a larger story. She has an eye for layered scenes, with a lot of small but important details, that convey a lot about this specialized world without becoming heavy-handed or cliché.” See the full project.

2nd place: “California” by Tudor Prisăcariu

Romania-born Tudor Prisăcariu had long associated California’s landscapes with beaches and palm trees due to common depictions of the state in popular culture. But when the photographer embarked on a three-week road trip across the U.S. West last summer, it was California’s “vast, mostly deserted mainland” that was most engaging. Prisăcariu used contrasting light and landscapes to compose a series of images that depict what the photographer describes as “an almost antithetical version of the Californian Dream.” 

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“It’s a very realistic interpretation of the area,” judge Jason Seldon says. “No one expects to see that on a road trip through California.” See the full project.

3rd place: “Like Last Year’s Snow” by Oded Wagenstein

In Siberia’s nomadic herding communities, men are encouraged to maintain their social roles as they grow older, while aging women are commonly pressured to leave their herding lifestyles behind and retreat to seclusion. Photographer Oded Wagenstein’s striking series, “Like Last Year’s Snow—Inside Siberia’s isolated community of forgotten women,” documents the unequal struggles these nomadic women face as they grow older in the remote tundra.

It took Wagenstein one flight, a 60-hour train ride from Moscow, and a seven-hour drive that crossed a frozen river to arrive to the village of Yar-Sale in northern Siberia. Once there, Wagenstein took portraits of the women—isolated in their homes away from their communities—and juxtaposed those images with photographs of the surrounding tundra they once wandered freely. “This series establishes a contemplative approach to the subject matter,” judge Brian Finke says. “The pairings of portrait and exterior landscape support his goal of showing his subjects’ relation to their land while visually representing their isolation within the larger community.” See the full project.

Single photo winners

1st place: “Parral Night” by Paul Ratje

Photographer Paul Ratje captured a quiet scene in Parral, a colonial town in Chihuahua, Mexico. “In Mexico, you see many food stands selling snacks late at night,” Ratje says. “I wanted to capture the mood of the places where locals go after a long day of work for something cheap to eat.” Ratje’s work stood out for its attention to color and contrast. “The technical aspect—how the image was lit—was the level of quality we were looking for,” judge Jason Seldon says. “It’s clear and crisp and colorful. What first came to mind was an Edward Hopper painting in real life.”

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2nd place: “Bright Minuet” by Alessandro Zanoni

Photographer Alessandro Zanoni took this photo while touring the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea. “I was concentrated on taking pictures that highlighted the contrast between the ancient wall and the modern government buildings behind it,” Zanoni says. While he was shooting those images, three girls in traditional Korean dress walked through Zanoni’s frame. “I think their presence underlines the contrasts in this fast-changing city, where traditions and modernity are often crossing each other,” he continues. The panel of judges agreed. “It’s a graphic moment,” judge Tara Guertin says. “It’s stark, which works on an artistic level.”
3rd place: “Night Falls Above Jesus Maria” by Kirstin Schmitt

Photographer Kirstin Schmitt captured this image as part of a larger project (with collaborator Juan Aristides Otamendiz) that focuses on Cuba’s LGBTQ community. The photograph stood out for its intimacy, a testament to the trust Schmitt was able to establish with her subjects while documenting them in their day-to-day lives. “I found this intriguing because it shared a story that hasn’t been told recently about Cuba,” judge Jason Seldon says. “The personal connection within that private space really came through in the image.”

>>Next: See more from the AFAR Travel Photography Awards