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.



Finding light in the darkness: An elephants’ tale for Christmas.

Christmas. An uncertain ending to a bleak year. And, to those who pay attention to such things, signs of more bleakness to come. Hurricanes, cyclones. Droughts, forest fires. Dying oceans. Shrinking glaciers, melting polar ice caps. A climate emergency in the present, and a looming mass extinction in the future. Feckless leadership. Unquestioning followers. In the kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Christmas is traditionally a time of hope and spiritual renewal, regardless of one’s social, political and religious affiliations, but this Christmas seems empty somehow — a throwback to Dickensian times, perhaps, this time with the added distraction of frenzied technology and the ever-present threat of Big Brother, looming over us, driven and enflamed by social media.

And yet.

There are still good, kind people out there. Science and technology is still capable of producing surprises. And miracles. There have been scientific advances in the past year that take the breath away.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, and a 92-year-old, Sir David Attenborough, stood and delivered before an international conference on climate change, and the world listened.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

NASA landed a space probe on a predetermined, precise spot on the red planet, Mars, after a journey that lasted seven months, over 300 million miles.

The true wonder, which would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago, was that NASA’s InSight probe beamed pictures from a neighbouring planet, in real time, in such a way that you could watch them on a screen the size of your hand, on your phone.

And in an early Christmas present for anyone who cares about elephants and the health of the world’s remaining wild creatures, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the African country of Zambia, together with the conservation NGO Elephant Connection Research Project ( ECR), provided long-awaited proof of the viability of “wildlife corridors” that connect far-flung populations of wild animals across national, political boundaries. Wildlife corridors for animals such as elephants are essential for the revitalization of threatened and endangered species.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

In the case of the Zambia elephant, the pleasure lies in the details. An elephant bull was fitted with a remote tracking collar in 2017. In the past year, he was shown to have walked a long, circuitous route from his original home in in Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park to neighbouring Kafue National Park, a distance of 390 kilometres, in 14 days, accompanied by six other elephants, through another country.

In moving to Kafue from Sioma Ngwezi through the broader Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), this elephant and his companions demonstrated that restless tuskers wander in and out of neighbouring countries whenever the mood suits them.

Elephants have been known to wander back and forth between Namibia, Zambia, Angola, Botswana and even neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa. The regional transfrontier park system, as represented by the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, recognizes the right of wild animals to travel across national boundaries in protected areas, regardless of any political tensions that may exist between countries. The transfrontier park system was originally proposed in part, co-developed, established and enforced by one of the region’s great elder statesmen. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name was Nelson Mandela.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Information and knowledge are vital not just to existing wildlife populations, but for future populations as well. WWF Zambia’s communications officer, Nchimunya Kasongo, noted in a press statement that this isn’t just about elephants. Information gleaned from the satellite-collaring of elephants in Zambia — 15 collared to date — is crucial to understanding the right and wrong way to use land in such a way that subsistence farmers won’t be terrorized by seven-ton elephants, and the elephants in turn won’t be shot by angry farmers. It’s all about lessening the chances for human-wildlife conflict.

The future of the world’s large endangered wild animals, not just elephants but also rhinos, lions, gorillas, jaguars and polar bears wildlife is not only tied to climate change and habitat loss but also making sure the animals who call the wilderness home and the people who live there don’t come into conflict.

Why does this matter? We’ve trashed the planet in recent decades, in thrall to the demands a miserable, insecure society, even as the language of environmental protest has changed. A new, younger generation is involved, and they are engaged in ways we never were. Many of them know, even if we have forgotten, that economics and the environment are inextricably interwoven, in the same way an elephant from Kafue, Zambia is connected to another elephant from Khaudom National Park in Namibia.

Here’s one final thought to leave you with, on this Christmas Day 2018, this one brought to you by Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green party in Wales and England, writing in The Guardian:

“History is not pre-written, or destined to repeat itself. Offering the hope that with political, economic, social, educational and environmental transformation we can build a society that works for the common good, within the physical limits of this one fragile planet, is politically essential. The politics of the far right is built on fear and we must not feed that.

“Business as usual isn’t an option. But then that is one thing that certainly is not going to happen. That’s good news, for our planet and for its people.”

Merry Christmas, good people of Planet Earth.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons