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For this week’s issue, we combed countless archives in search of the perfect photograph to accompany a history of the American Dream, the subject of the cover story by Jon Meacham. In the end, we turned to photographer Mike Sinclair, who’s been rigorously documenting America’s heartland near his home in Kansas City, Mo. When asked about his photos, he modestly says, “I never really set out to photograph the American Dream or western culture. These are not projects. The edits come out of thinking about themes. I like going through my work and then figuring it out.”

For more than 30 years, Sinclair has documented places where people gather, like state fairs, sporting events and parks. “I grew up in the heyday of LIFE and photojournalism. I realized early on that I was better at visual things,” he tells TIME.

Sinclair decided to pursue journalism at the University of Missouri, but after one year, he realized that it wasn’t a great fit. “I came under the spell of Winogrand and Friedlander and found them more interesting as a budding photojournalist. I eventually went to Southern Illinois University, where they had an undergraduate program in fine art photography. Once I got there, I was in heaven—it combined my interest in the fine arts and photography.”

“I just like everything about taking photos and going to these events. It’s a great counterpoint to photographing modern architecture,” says Sinclair, who does the job professionally to make a living between his documentary projects. All of his images reflect the rigor of an architectural photographer with the straightforward style of masters like Walker Evans, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore.

“I switched to architecture because I thought after 30 or 40 years I’d have some kind of record of this time and what happened,” he explains.

Sinclair’s understated and introverted approach to documenting an event feels easygoing, placing viewers in the shoes of a local rather than an outsider. He photographs on trips he plans and usually goes with his family. “I kind of plant the camera in front of people and spend time with them,” he says. In all his images, he almost feels invisible.

Sinclair has no real plans for his work except to keep making it. In the beginning, he says, “I first shared the work to the owner of the Dolphin Gallery in Kansas City and was encouraged by him to show it [elsewhere]. Eventually, through them, my work found its way into collections around the country.” These collections include The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, also in Kansas City.

Sinclair disagrees when people label him as a certain type of photographer. “I don’t think of myself as a Midwestern photographer. I think the same sort of things happen everywhere I’ve been.” His image of the Fourth of July (featured above) speaks to his claim—it feels like it could represent almost anywhere in America.

“Part of what I’m interested in is this idea of public space and the preciousness of it. It’s something that we all need,” he says.

Mike Sinclair is a photographer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His current exhibition ‘Public Assembly’ is on view at Jen Bekman Projects in New York City until June 24. 

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Liu Jie / Xinhua News Agency

Portrait series, 3rd Place: Peasant worker Wang Jianjun who serves as low-income labor in Chengdu city of China sits beside an image of his daughter being left behind at the undeveloped rural area in Sichuan province in China, Dec 05, 2011. As the progress of urbanization in China is speeding up, there are 250 million young Chinese peasant and farmers moving to cities working as low-income labors, leaving 20 million old people and 58 million children behind at the undeveloped rural areas.

By Meredith Birkett

It's photojournalism award season which gives us a chance to look back at last year's images and acknowledge some of the best work captured. Last week, we published some of the winners from the World Press Photo contest.

Sam Dean / The Roanoke Times

General News, Award of Excellent: "I had to be here and look and feel if there was anything here," says Gil Harrington, left, supported by her husband Dan Harrington while visiting the site where their daughter Morgan Harrington's remains were discovered. She went missing after a Metallica concert in Charlottesville, Va. in 2009.

This week, winners were announced in the University of Missouri's prestigious Pictures of the Year International. The winning images are a reminder of the huge stories that made the year remarkable. From tsunamis to the Arab Spring, photojournalists had more dramatic, historic and poignant events to capture than usual. To do it well takes expert skill. But it's also the mark of a great photojournalist when they can cover the everyday and mundane and still make a compelling frame.

In this post, fellow editor James Cheng and I point out a few of our favorite frames from these quieter stories. If you have time this weekend, take a look at the POYi website to see them all, from the big stories to the less well known.

Pavel Koubek / Nerikes Allehanda

Portrait, 3rd Place: The person looking back at you in the mirror never changes. It is the same person as it was when you were five years old according to Kjell Nilsson, life coach. Like the forest lake`s reflection of the world, where the surface seems to split reality. Above all is elusive, comes and goes from birth to death. Underneath is the anchorage, the awareness of the constant being.

Preston Gannaway / The Virginian-Pilot

Feature, Award of Excellence: Joe Patch grabs a drink of water during a break between acting for groups during Bethel Baptist Church's Judgement House. The dramatization is an evangelistic tool for the conservative Christian church. In the Judgement House play, the character, who had not been saved, is sent to hell despite being "a good person."

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Several times a year, Mr. Buffett invites business students from around the U.S. to Berkshire’s headquarters in Omaha for a day’s visit. He answers their questions, and they tour local businesses owned by Berkshire. Throughout the day, Mr. Buffett doles out lessons on life, telling the students to choose the right spouse and surround themselves with people who are better than they are. The ritual ends with a photo shoot. Each student gets to take two pictures with Mr. Buffett. The first one is a serious shot, the second is a funny pose of their choosing.

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair got the rare opportunity to photograph this ritual. Here are some of her photos from that shoot. (For the story and more photos, click here.)

All photographs by Stephanie Sinclair/VII for The Wall Street Journal.

‘I asked, “Would you mind grabbing my tie and pretending like you’re choking me to death?” He was in on it and he did it right away.’ —Pat Ryan, 29, second-year M.B.A. student at the University of Notre Dame

‘I said, “I’m going to whisper something in your ear,” and then I said, “Pretend I’m saying something very exciting!” And he started making these noises, like “Oooh!”‘ —Masha Dudelzak, 27, second-year M.B.A. student at the University of Toronto

‘I didn’t know he gave me bunny ears until my friends told me. I thought we were taking a regular picture.’ —Vu Le, 24, University of Massachusetts senior, from Vietnam

‘I wanted to do something unique to Notre Dame…so I asked him, “Could you put your hands up like the Fighting Irish?” He had seen the leprechaun logo of our school before, and I helped him move his arms into the right spots.’ —Adrianna Stasiuk, 25, second-year M.B.A. student at the University of Notre Dame

‘We saw another student do it with him and we asked if we could kiss him at the same time, and he said yes. He was very laid back and nice and fun.’ —Kelsey Kotur, right, 22, second-year M.B.A. student at the University of Missouri

‘I just thought it would be so funny to have a picture of us doing that; not many people get that opportunity.’ —Paige Halamicek, left, 22, first-year M.B.A. student at the University of Missouri

‘He just said, “I’ll just put you in a headlock, how about that?”‘ —Alex Williams, 21, senior at Gonzaga University

‘I got my friend’s ring and I was going to propose to him. He said, “Let’s do a good one,” and got down on a knee, grabbed my hand and said, “Please take me, please have me.” It was funny. I was so shocked.’ —Alexa Tavasci, 21, junior at Northern Arizona University

‘Students who went last year told us about the serious and funny photos, and the plan was to bring some props. I had couple of sunglasses from a previous party, so I brought them along and asked if he would wear them.’ —Andrew Robertson, 27 years old, second-year M.B.A. student at the University of Toronto

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Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Railway tracks lead towards the main train station as the sun sets on a freezing cold afternoon in Frankfurt, Germany on Jan. 31, 2012.

By Robert Hood, Supervising Multimedia Producer

I’ve always liked pictures of common subjects that require a little work from the viewer to figure out. The moment of recognition is fun.

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It's time once more for a look into the animal kingdom and our interactions with the countless other species that share our planet. Today's photos include a fiery Spanish festival, a frightening encounter with a leopard in India, a flamingo undergoing laser treatment, a new species named in honor of entertainer Beyonce, and the plight of Ukraine's "vodka bears". These images and many others are part of this roundup of animals in the news from recent weeks, seen from the perspectives of their human observers, companions, captors, and caretakers. [42 photos]

A man rides a horse through a bonfire on January 16, 2012 in the small village of San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain. In honor of San Anton, the patron saint of animals, horses are ridden through the bonfires on the night before the official day of honoring animals in Spain. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

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For members of the Ku Klux Klan, burning a cross isn’t sacrilege: it’s an act of faith.

Every so often members of the highly secretive organization gather in fields to conduct so-called “cross lightings”—ceremonies meant to reaffirm their belief that Christianity is a white religion, and to strengthen the bonds between them. Veiled in white robes, members form a circle around a wooden cross. Following a group prayer, each man—or woman—throws his torch at the cross and spreads his arms outward to mimic its shape. “I know from talking to members of the Klan that it’s a very spiritual experience for them,” says Tyler Cacek, a photojournalist who has been researching and photographing Klansmen since 2009. “They really feel that this is the closest they could possibly come to God.”

First founded by veterans of the Confederate Army in 1865, the KKK has gone through several iterations—first as an insurgent movement in the South during Reconstruction, then as a racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant fraternal organization, and finally, as many have described, as a subversive terrorist organization opposed to civil rights. Its influence has waned significantly over the course of the 20th century, peaking in the 1920s when it had up to six million members. Today the American Defamation League estimates its numbers have dwindled to around 5,000 members, who are affiliated with roughly 40 local chapters.

Cacek, 20, is quick to point out that he isn’t a KKK sympathizer. The purpose of his series—entitled “For the Love of Hate”—is to understand how reasonable people come to adopt an unreasonable philosophy. “It’s one thing for me to understand them and it’s another thing for me to agree with them,” he says. “As a photographer I want to be able to show the human side of the story, and the process that leads these people to their beliefs.”

Members come to the organization in a number of ways—sometimes encouraged by family, sometimes in spite of them. They frequently feel like victims of inequality and have had negative encounters with specific people that later color their impressions of groups at large. Being bullied by immigrants or minorities is one example. Others are more extreme. “I know one guy whose brother was killed by a gang in Chicago,” Cacek says. “That really reinforced his belief that it’s good to seek racial segregation.”

Gaining the trust of the Klan hasn’t been easy: they’re naturally suspicious of media coverage, and have a checkered history with journalists, police informants and the government. Although Cacek has developed a working relationship with a number of Klansmen and photographed various groups in Kentucky and Virginia, he still faces challenges that limit the scope of his work. Members of the Klan like to maintain an aura of mystery—hence the white robes—and they insist that photos include their pointed hats and swastika tattoos. All that symbolism “makes it much more difficult for me to break into something deeper that tells a poignant story.”

Ty Cacek is a documentary photographer and currently studying at the University of Missouri. See more of his work here. If interested in supporting his project on The Ku Klux Klan, take a look at his Kickstarter here.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook

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John Moore / Getty Images

Newly commissioned 2nd lieutenants throw their caps in the air as a team of Air Force Thunderbirds fly over the 2011 graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy on May 25, 2011 in Colorado Springs, Colo. A total of 1,021 graduates received their diplomas in front of their families and dignitaries at the Academy's Falcon Stadium.

Robert Hood writes

We see a variation of this picture every year, and I never get tired of it. Good luck graduates.

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