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Winners of AFAR’s Travel Photography Awards Talk Creative Inspiration, Documenting Culture, and Immersive Travel

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United Airlines Is Sending Two Award-Winning Travel Photographers on Their Next Journey

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When documentary photographer Stephanie Gengotti decides upon a story she wants to capture through her lens, she sets about immersing herself completely into her subjects’ world. Often this process involves spending weeks getting to know the most intimate details of their lives.

“I have to live with the people to understand them and discover what others usually can’t see. I need to become part of their reality,” Gengotti says.

One of Gengotti’s images from her series “Circus Love,” for which she received first prize in AFAR’s Travel Photography Awards competition, sponsored by United Airlines.
Her recent series, “Circus Love,” documents a small, nontraditional circus troupe as they perform throughout Italy. The images recently won first prize for the “series” category of the first-ever AFAR Travel Photography Awards, sponsored by United Airlines.

United awarded the first-place winners a pair of United Polaris business class international tickets to help support their next creative endeavor. United’s Polaris service makes long-haul flights painless with chef-designed meals, premium bedding, and exclusive access to Polaris lounges at major airports—meaning you can arrive in your destination ready to explore, perhaps with a camera in hand.

Paul Ratje, whose image won the “single shot” category, also takes a culturally immersive approach to his craft. A photojournalist by trade, he focuses primarily on street scenery, exploring themes of intimacy and community in a unique light. Ratje has traveled around the world in search of compelling stories; he lived in Taiwan for six years and has spent time exploring China, the Philippines, and other corners of Southeast Asia. Since moving back home to New Mexico several years ago, he has produced visual stories featuring both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

Ratje’s image, shot in Las Cruces, New Mexico, won first prize for the “single shot” category of AFAR’s Travel Photography Awards. The competition was sponsored by United Airlines, who awarded the winners a pair of United Polaris business class tickets.
“I’m really into candid street photography,” he says. “[With this photograph], I saw something in the image that really inspired me … The photo shows an important side of Mexico to me, and that’s the food, the street food.”

Both photographers hope that the Polaris tickets will unlock new and inspiring opportunities for them, both professionally and personally.

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“I will use the Polaris tickets to start a new project. I will look for a new community, a different kind of lifestyle,” says Gengotti, who hopes to take on a similarly ambitious project to “Circus Love.” “Sometimes it’s a long process to look for stories — and then sometimes, you’re just not thinking, and the story looks for you and finds you,” she explains.

Though Gengotti is still unsure where the Polaris tickets will take her, she now has a veritable world of options at her disposal: United offers flights to visually inspiring destinations all over the globe, from hubs in the United States like Chicago and San Francisco to Hong Kong and New Zealand. The airline also provides business travelers with a convenient schedule — including hundreds of direct routes daily — and state-of-the-art aircraft such as Dreamliners, which are ideal for long-haul flights.

A long-haul flight is exactly what Ratje has in mind for his Polaris tickets: He thinks he’ll use the opportunity to fly to China and revisit the Tibetan Plateau, where he has been working on a challenging series since 2015. The project documents Tibetans whose lives are changing as they modernize and adopt elements of Chinese culture.

“Being selected for the winning image means a lot to me as a photographer and for continuing my personal work,” Ratje says. “The prize and the plane tickets will go straight back into my photography and allow me to do what I do. It’s not an easy game to play — the photography/photojournalism game. But when something like this happens, it really makes a big difference.”

To spark your own creative inspiration, book a United flight today to explore a new destination.

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