The “eye of the beholder” and award competitions: When seeing is not always believing.

Another internationally juried photo prize, another controversy — another scandal.

Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee’s haunting image of a partially blind Vietnamese woman carrying her baby won top honours — and the USD $120,000 prize that came with it — at the 2019 Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) in Dubai.

Ong’s vision was judged to be the most representative of this year’s theme, “Hope,” and there’s an undeniable human quality to the image, its depiction of sadness and loss, coupled with one person’s determination to survive, despite the challenges.

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

As reported on PetaPixel, though, according to those who were there at the March 12 ceremony, the announcement was greeted with several eye-rolls, mutterings and murmurs of thinly veiled irritation. Here we go again with the poverty porn, they seemed to be saying.

The term “poverty porn” has been used to describe photographers’ fixation on images of people struggling to survive desperate circumstances. These images are considered safe to do because to dismiss the image is to dismiss the subject, and who in good conscience would do that?

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

There’s a growing feeling in the photography community, though, that creativity — looking at familiar subjects in new, unfamiliar ways — should count for more than always taking the safe and obvious route, especially when it comes to internationally recognized competitions.

Any announcement of a major award, especially one with money involved, is bound to be greeted with catcalls. Judging is subjective, after all. My choice may not be yours. Cynics are everywhere, and it’s always easier to disagree than to agree. Safe choices are safe for a reason: People like them, and photo juries tend to agree. When a rare, controversial choice is made — South African photographer Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino winning the prestigious 53rd annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year award being a prime example — the resulting public disagreement, and the bad press that comes with it, can scare future juries away from making similar choices. 

The Wildlife Photographer jury opted for a much safer image in this year’s awards, picking Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s portrait of two rare golden snub-nosed monkeys in China's Qinling mountains, over a field of nominees that included SeaLegacy photographer Justin Hofman’s unforgettable — and hard to look at — image of a starving polar bear in Canada’s far north.

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

The Hamdan International Photography Award was bound to have its detractors, in other words, no matter what image was chosen.

But then the other shoe dropped, and a controversy became a scandal.

It turns out the photo was probably staged. The seemingly natural image — with its echoes of Steve McCurry’s famous National Geographic cover shot of “the Afghan Girl” — was one of several taken by a group of photographers at a photo-op session organized by fellow photographer Ab Rashid.

Ong defended his image to the Malaysian daily The Star, telling the paper, “In this trip to Vietnam, we (photographers) went to the rice field and there was a mother (with her children) that passed by. We never told her to stand up or sit down.”

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

Strictly speaking, Ong never violated any rules of the contest: Unlike some juried photo competitions, the  Hamdan Photography Award doesn’t require photographers to sign a claim that prohibits staging or, in the case of nature photography competitions like the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer awards, that the subject be free-ranging, in its natural habitat. Unlike the World Press Photo Awards — itself a lightning rod for recent controversy — the Hamdan Award doesn’t demand that photographers follow the principles and ethics of professional photojournalism, with its emphasis on hard news.

Recent past winners of the Hamdan Award show an understandable bias towards photojournalism, though, and it’s easy to see why: These are the images that reflect the world as it is, not necessarily as we want it to be.

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

Even so, there’s something unsettling knowing that an image was, if not staged exactly, certainly posed, when comparisons to actual, genuine photojournalism are not just implied but obvious for all to see.

In a thoughtful essay on PetaPixel, Yale University graduate, iTunes podcaster and PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi suggests the problem isn’t the contest but us, as a society.

“We feel duped,” he wrote, “not necessarily because the image may or may not have been directed. We feel duped because Ong took the image with a gaggle of other photographer of a young, impoverished mother in a way that feels creepily reminiscent of a mid-20th-century all-male camera club hiring a female model.”

We live in an Instagram culture of algorithm-generated clicks that encourages “likes” and feeds on our collective vanity and search for validation.

“The same people who decry contests use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to build their own followings,” Murabayashi said, “while chasing retweets and likes of their own.”

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

Our collective fascination with the pain and suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves is harder to reconcile. A powerful image of someone in distress can raise awareness and generate much-needed funding for relief efforts — we can’t rely on Western and particularly US politicians to do the right thing — but there’s also that disquieting feeling that it’s amoral to celebrate suffering in the form of competitions that provide a cash prize — in some cases a significant cash prize, as with the Hamdan Award — to the winners.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, any monetary reward should go to the subject, at least in part.

There’s an upside to the Hamdan Award as is, Murabayashi suggests.

“If nothing else, maybe increased awareness of the world’s richest photo contest will attract a whole new wave of photographers doing important, long-term work.”

Perhaps. As long as photo captions — and juried competitions — don’t explicitly explain whether an image was natural or posed, though, questions will remain. Troubling questions.

Later: Here’s an interesting thought.

In the stream of comments posted on PetaPixel and other sites in the wake of the “posed photo” revelation, more than one person suggested the behind-the-scenes image below tells a more topical, relevant story than the actual image that won the Hamdan Award.

It has certainly kickstarted a more far-reaching conversation about the relationship between photographer and subject, and how the haves often exploit the have-nots for their own purposes, regardless of motive.

That’s not news, of course — or won’t be to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of how the world works — but it’s worth talking about in the open, in online chat forums and other public spaces, and not behind closed doors in sequestered photo-jury rooms.

Another interesting question: How many of these  photographers pictured here got exactly the same image, but didn’t think to submit it to an international photo competition?

How original is originality supposed to be, anyway?

After all, the eye of the beholder doesn’t add up to much if everyone sees the same thing.

Food for thought.



Sand mining — the global environmental crisis you’ve never heard of.

As incredible as it might seem, the world is running out of sand.

Depending on who you talk to, whether in academia or in the conservation community — or with anyone who keeps up on the news and reads between the lines —sand is the new gold, the new coltan, the new diamonds.

The New Yorker, The Guardian, al-Jazeera English, The Economist, Business Insider, the journal Science and countless others have weighed in on the looming sand crisis.

As headlines go, though, this one is decidedly unsexy. Sand doesn’t have its own lobby group. Sand isn’t an icon animal on the brink of extinction, nor does it seem as immediate and far-reaching in our day-to-day lives as the precarious state of the world’s oceans. Not even David Attenborough, probably,  could pull off a cautionary documentary series about sand, and get people to watch.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

I’ve enclosed a couple of links below to the more authoritative, recent — and reliable — media accounts of what for all intensive purposes looks like a looming existential crisis.

Here at a glance, though, are the big-picture issues, facts, questions and arguments, whittled down to a few brief, basic pointers.

• The problem, as always, is overpopulation — too many people, with more arriving all the time — coupled with overheated economies competing for a finite and ever-dwindling supply of natural resources.

• Sand is vital for use in construction. It is one of the  primary ingredients of concrete.

• The world’s largest, ever-expanding deserts contain huge deposits of sand, it is true, but it’s the wrong kind.

• Desert sand is composed mostly of tiny, finely rounded grains, sculpted and smoothed by wind erosion. The sand used in concrete is of a more jagged, rough-edged kind — the kind found, ideally, at the bottom of riverbeds.

• Riverbed sand is prized because it has the right texture and purity, and is constantly washed clean by running water. Freshwater, not salt.

• As the sand needed for construction becomes more sought after, there’s a growing black market in sand that’s illegally obtained.

• Demand drives the market, as always. Sadly for the environment, a hollowed-out riverbed in a protected, environmentally sensitive area can take decades, generations — centuries, even — to recover.

• In the meantime, illegally dredged sand leaves  environmental ruin in its wake. Sand barriers and coral reefs that protect coast communities can collapse; drinking water is polluted; and habitat that sustains fish, turtles and other riverine life is destroyed.

• Illegal sand-dredging is conducted on an industrial scale, with hundreds of trucks filled, often late at night, in a matter of hours. 

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Strange but true: The world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is surrounded by sand, part of the Arabian Desert, a vast desert wilderness that stretches from Yemen in the Persian Gulf to Jordan and Iraq in the heart of the Middle East. And yet, the Burj Khalifa was constructed with concrete incorporating “the right kind of sand” — imported from Australia. Everything comes at a cost.

Sand may not be a headline grabber, but the numbers are truly vast. 

Consider this: In 2014, the most recent year for which hard figures are available, sand accounted for 85 percent of the total weight of minded material on Planet Earth that year. That’s an issue because, according to published reports, sand is replenished by rock erosion over thousands years.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

High demand inevitably leads to scarcity, which in turn means money — and money means trouble. The world sand extraction market is estimated to be worth some USD $70 billion a year; a cubic metre of sand can fetch as much as USD $100 in areas of high demand and short supply.

Sand mining is unsustainable over the long term. More and more, scientists insist this is a hidden ecological disaster in the making. We’ll be hearing a lot more about sand in the coming years, they say.

Life’s a beach, it seems, in more ways than one. To paraphrase the late great Jimi Hendrix, even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.