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.



Anthony Bourdain on a life hard-lived: ‘Another thing you did . . . another place you’ve been.’

Is it possible to be both shaken and stirred at the same time?

I know that feeling today.

I never met Anthony Bourdain in person, but I feel like he was in the seat beside me while I was winging my way to Namibia, literally halfway around the world from where I live, a few years back.

I had loaded my iPad with Africa-centric episodes of Bourdain’s lively, live-and-let-live CNN series Parts Unknown, and I knew enough about Mozambique,  Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania — all countries Bourdain passed through during his 11 seasons of making Parts Unknown — that, and there’s no delicate way to put this, he was no bullshit artist.

Whatever he was, and he was plenty, he did not take fools gladly. And he wasn’t about to sing the praises of a travel destination if there were no praises to sing.

He had a way of winning the hearts and minds of those he broke bread with, and he was both a lively TV host and, more importantly, a lively and entertaining dinner guest. He was incurably curious, even toward the end, and that’s rare in those who’ve succeeded beyond all expectations, and in the public eye at that. He had every right to be jaded, even at age 61, but as those who’ve watched his most recent  sojourns through Uruguay, Armenia and Hong Kong know — all episodes that aired earlier this season on CNN, with episodes based in Berlin, Bhutan and “Cajun Mardi Gras” yet to air — he still had the wide-eyed curiosity of a little boy flipping through a world atlas for the first time and wondering whether they serve fries with that, whether it’s in the French Alps or Southern Italy, on “the Heel of the Boot,” as he put it.



He could be loud, abrasive, outspoken and in-your-face — he famously banned a certain New York real-estate mogul, blowhard and leader of the free world from his restaurant in the nation’s capital — but he was a terrific listener.

Many TV hosts don’t bother with listening, but Bourdain not only listened; he genuinely cared. As I say, no bullshit artist. I frankly doubt he could have lied to spare someone’s feelings even if he wanted to.

Anyone who watched Parts Unknown — whether regularly, like a habitual pilgrimage to a favorite restaurant, or on-and-off, like an off-the-cuff, impromptu sampling of the dishes at an unfamiliar buffet — is likely to have come away with favorite moments.

As I try to come to grips with Friday’s news that Bourdain is no longer with us — he was only 61, for crying out loud — I’ve narrowed my choice memories down to two, that for me encapsulate everything I enjoyed about Bourdain, his travels, his personality, his countenance, and the way his mind worked. (Personal confession: I am arguably the world’s worst stay-at-home cook, an avid believer in takeout and an unapologetic junk-food junkie, and so whatever appeal Bourdain’s programs No Reservations and Parts Unknown held for me, pretending to be a worldly chef is not among them.)



First, Bourdain was a fine writer — another attribute not particularly common among either celebrity chefs or TV presenters — and he always tried to frame his programs around a singular narrative that reflected the place or culture of the place he was visiting. This wasn’t contrived or forced, either; an avid book reader and dedicated follower of pop-culture, he had a way of viewing even an unfamiliar place through a familiar lens, but without appearing to be patronizing or condescending. He reminded me most of the fine travel writer, essayist and novelist Paul Theroux, one of my favorite writers, and it was a thrill to see Bourdain swap tales with Theroux in person during a 2015 tete-a-tete over Hawaiian stew in Honolulu, near where Theroux now makes his home.

My two memories — yours will no doubt be different — are of Bourdain’s sixth-season return to Borneo, after a 10-year absence, and his eighth-season sit-down at a noodle shop in Hanoi, Vietnam (“one of these classic, funky, family-run noodle shops you find all over Hanoi, where dinner and a beer cost about six dollars”), when a fleet of black SUVs pulls up and he’s joined by that other leader of the free world — you know, the one who was born in Kenya — who complains, in a free-wheeling, free-ranging conversation, about uncouth eating habits, over a bowl of bun cha (pork patties and pork belly, served in a broth of vinegar, sugar and fermented fish sauce, with chillies and sticky cold noodles, “and get ready for the awesomeness”).



First, though, my fondest memory is of one of the very first Parts Unknown’s I happened to see, Bourdain’s return to Borneo, which first aired on Nov. 1, 2015. “When I first went up this river,” Bourdain opened his voice-over with, in an Apocalypse Now-inspired opening up a jungle river, “I was sick with love. The bad kind. The fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me upriver, all the way. That was ten long years ago. A previous episode of a previous series, of a previous life. Yet here I am again. Heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.”

That’s instructive to remember today, the day Bourdain’s sudden passing was announced, because while he was always clear about his drug taking and boozing in his misspent younger years, it was on that Colonel Kurtz-Marlon Brando inspired journey up a jungle river in Borneo that he exposed his heart of darkness to the world watching on CNN.

Far up the river, far removed from civilization, thunder rolls and a gray sky descends. Bourdain must kill a pig for the night’s feast — as the honored guest, it’s a village tradition — and Bourdain, shades of Apocalypse Now, has mixed emotions about it.



“I’d like to tell you that this is never easy, that I felt this time like I did the first time: sad, nauseated, complicit, aware that I’d crossed a line, been changed by the blood, the violence and the awful noise,” he told the camera. “But that would be a lie. This time, I plunged the spear in without hesitation or remorse.”

Cue dark, electronic music, and blood mixing in the river water.

“When the pig dies,” Bourdain continued, “finally gives it up, I feel only relief. I had been hardened by the last 10 years. I don’t know what that says about me, but there it is.”

Later in the hour, Bourdain is back at the booze, downing shots of homemade river hooch with his village companions. “At this point, I think, my body is like an old car. Another dent ain’t going to make a whole lot of difference. At best, it’s a reminder that you’re still alive and lucky as hell. Another tattoo, another thing you did. Another place you’ve been.”



Fast forward two years, and Bourdain was sitting at that noodle shop in Hanoi, across the table from the previous leader of the free world, over a bowl of bun cha.

Is ketchup on a hotdog ever acceptable, Bourdain asked.

“No,” was the reply. “And I mean that. That’s one of those things that . . . let me put it this way: It’s not acceptable beyond the age of eight. I’m sorry. It’s not acceptable.”

Bourdain’s daughter was eight, he told his lunch companion, and the other day she asked if she could put ketchup on her hotdog.

The then-leader of the free world laughed gently.

“That isn’t happening,” he said.

And this is where Bourdain, and Parts Unknown, soared; the conversation turned to weightier issues, including the fact that they were eating lunch together at a roadside noodle shop, unmolested by their fellow lunch companions, despite sitting in the middle of a tiny room on rickety chairs at a rickety table, the kind of place where working people eat on-the-fly and mind their own business.

“Seeing how other people in the world live seems useful at worst,” Bourdain said, “and pleasurable at best.”



His lunch companion concurred.

“It confirms the basic truth that people everywhere are pretty much the same. The same hopes and dreams. When you come to a place like Vietnam and you see former American Vietnam vets coming back, and you see somebody like a John Kerry and a John McCain, two very different people politically and temperamentally, but who were able to bond in their experience of meeting with their former adversaries. You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies.”

As the father of a young girl, Bourdain wanted to know: “Is it all going to be okay? Is it all going to work out?

“Is my daughter going to be able to come here, five years, ten years from now, and have a bowl of bun cha and the world will be a better place?”

Bourdain’s daughter Ariane is, today, just 11-years-old.

“Sure,” the then-leader of the free world replied. “Progress is not a straight line. There are going to be moments in any given part of the world where things are terrible. But . . . having said all that, I think things are going to work out.”

“Thank you so much,” Bourdain said. “Cheers.”

And they clinked glasses.

No, Anthony Bourdain, thank you. It was good getting to know you. Even if it was from afar, on an iPad, somewhere over Africa, at 30,000 feet.