Justin Hofman

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. 

https://petapixel.com/2019/03/18/the-winning-photo-of-the-120k-hipa-prize-was-apparently-staged/


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.

©PetaPixel

©PetaPixel




Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018: The experts have spoken. Now it’s the people’s turn.

It’s a known fact: People trust customer reviews more than they do critics. As one influencer posted recently on Review Trackers — not exactly an unbiased source, as any objective, professional journalist worth their salt, would point out — “So it’s between the New York Times and Yelp.”

The academia website academia.edu recently asked — somewhat rhetorically — if consumer critics write differently from professional critics, while the self-explanatory site “Coaching for Leaders” (coachingforleaders.com) named “3 Differences Between Feedback and Criticism” (the Dale Carnegie principle: ‘Don’t criticize, condemn or complain’).

All of which is a roundabout way of taking a second look at the 54th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, announced just last week.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons


I was fairly critical — and I stand by my criticism — of the judging committee’s choice for the top image this year, which favoured the safe and comfortable over last year’s daring and, some would say, controversial and inappropriate choice of a poached rhino, slaughtered for its horn, worth an estimated USD $120,000 on today’s black market. (Why ground powder from rhino horn, made of the same material — keratin — as our fingernails, should be so valuable to a primarily Asian market, and it is strictly an Asian market we’re talking about here, is a topic for a whole other debate.) One idea holds that wildlife photography awards should celebrate the beauty of nature; the other holds that, in the environmental catastrophe facing humankind and planet Earth today, the top award is better suited as a deliberate provocation, urging us to wake up and shake us out of our complacency.

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

Any award calling itself “the People’s Choice” wears its intention clearly and on its sleeve, though. Every year, following the WPOTY’s black-tie awards dinner at London’s Natural History Museum, the “Oscars of wildlife photography awards,” as they’ve been called, the judging committee announces 24 images shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award, which is announced the following February (voting for this year’s edition closes Dec. 13). Each visitor to the Natural History Museum’s website is allowed one vote, and one vote only. (This isn’t America’s Got Talent, where you can vote early and often, in almost as many different ways as you can think of.)

Anything open to the general public is driven by emotion, not reason.

That’s positive emotion, though. One of this year’s shortlisted finalists, of a starving polar bear, went viral around the world earlier this year. It sparked a lively and at times bitter debate about humankind’s effect on climate change in the polar regions. (Climate deniers refused to accept that the melting polar caps could have anything to do with a starving polar bear, et alone that humans might be responsible.) The image, by SeaLegacy conservation photographer Justin Hofman, is undeniably powerful, and has already proved influential, but I suspect it won’t win the people’s vote. (In his caption, titled “A Polar Bear’s Struggle,” Hofman admits his entire body was pained as he witnessed the starving bear scavenge for food at an abandoned hunter’s in the Canada’s high Arctic; the bear could barely stand under its own power, Hofman recalled.)

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy


There’s nothing wrong, in this case, with favouring beauty over fragility. Inspiration works in wondrous, often mysterious ways. In a world beset by grim, increasingly bleak news — everything from climate change and dwindling food resources to a new mass extinction — one can’t fault people for looking for a ray of light in the darkness, wherever that light may be found.

As the Natural History Museum’s own guidelines for the Lumix People’s Choice award points out, they’re looking for a winning image that “puts nature in the frame,” something that reflects the beauty and fragility of the natural world — with the emphasis, I’m guessing, on “beauty.”

A conservation-photographer acquaintance and occasional travel companion tells me he’s doubtful of people’s choice awards as a rule, since a public vote tends to favour those finalists who have a sizeable social media following, and he has a point.

Still, as someone who pays attention to customer reviews — I’ve personally known a number of professional critics, in different fields, who are so screwed up I’m not sure I’d trust their judgment of anything, let alone something I care about — I’m always curious to see where popular tastes lie.

I’ve yet to decide which image I’ll be voting for myself, but I have narrowed my choice down to three or four candidates. I have until next month to make my final decision — and you to, too, if you choose to participate.

As with any vote, though, remember: If you don’t vote, when you had the chance, you can’t complain afterwards, if the vote didn’t go the way you want.

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy/community/peoples-choice/2018/index.html

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the world's most prestigious nature photography competition (WildlifePhotographerOfTheYear.com). This year’s finalists and winners, some 100 images in all, are on display at  London’s Natural History Museum from now until June 30, 2019. See  nhm.ac.uk/wpy for tickets.

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54






Not just a pretty picture: Wildlife Photographer of Year Awards strive to save the planet.

A saved but caged Sumatran tiger. A tiny seahorse clinging to a discarded Q-tip cotton swab to swim downstream. Anemone fish showing off parasitic isopods that live inside their mouths (banner, above). An Arctic fox carrying a stolen egg. An elephant matriarch caught in repose after she’s led her herd to water during a dry spell.

These are the finalists in the 53rd annual running of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, to be presented Tuesday night at La black-tie ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum.

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The awards feature categories ranging from animal portrait to emerging young photographers, aged 11-14. One of the distinguishing features of this year’s competition is that two of the 13 finalists for Wildlife Photograph of the year — the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show — come from the young age group: Laura Albiac Vilas’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of a rare Iberian lynx in Spain’s Sierra de Andújar Natural Park, and Ashleigh Scully’s serendipitous capture of a bear cub hugging its mother in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park.

©Ashleigh Scully/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Ashleigh Scully/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

As in past years, though, it’s the environmental awareness images — the photos that trigger an emotional and intellectual debate about habitat destruction, climate change and the sixth mass extinction — that are causing the biggest stir. Veteran National Geographic big-cat specialist Steve Winter’s image of an adolescent Sumatran tiger snarling in a cage, shortly after having a badly damaged leg amputated, and California photographer Justin Hofman’s image of a seahorse swimming against a sea of muck, are standouts.

©Justin Hofman/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Justin Hofman/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Hofman’s seahorse, in particular, has gone viral, in part because it’s an artistically striking image — brilliant colour rendition and near-perfect compositional balance — and primarily because it tells such a vital story.

“It’s a photo I wish didn’t exist but now that it does, I want everyone to see it,” Hofman posted on his Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/justinhofman/). “What started as a cute opportunity to photograph a cute little seahorse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage.”

Hofman captured the image off the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, where he happened to be diving at the time. As striking to the eye as the image is, it tells a disturbing story about the daily travails of marine life living in seas and oceans choked by human and industrial pollution.

“This seahorse drifts along with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago,” Hofman continued on Instagram. “This (image) serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?”

Indonesia is increasingly in the environmental crosshairs. Winter’s injured tiger was captured in Indonesia; last year’s winning WPOTY image, captured by Tokyo-born National Geographic wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, was of an Indonesian orangutan — critically endangered, owing to the wholesale destruction of its forest habitat. In a 2015 Environmental Health Perspectives study, Indonesia ranked second only to China among the world’s largest producers of marine pollution on the planet, thanks to more than 3 million metric tons of plastic waste dumped into the ocean every year.

©Tim Laman/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Tim Laman/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Hofman hopes his photo will shake people’s complacency and help galvanize change.

This year’s 13 finalists were chosen from a shortlist of 100 images, themselves culled from more than 50,000 entries from 92 countries around the world.

London’s Natural History Museum will present a full exhibition of images from Oct. 20 through the spring, in the hopes that, to paraphrase the late jazz great Louis Armstrong, humanity may once again see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day and dark sacred night, so we may collectively once again be able to think to ourselves, what a wonderful world.

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year   

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

 

©Sergey Gorshkov/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year   

©Sergey Gorshkov/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year