The Problem Isn’t the Photo Contest, It’s Us

The Problem Isn’t the Photo Contest, It’s Us

Eye-rolls, shrugs, and barbs greeted the $120,000 Grand Prize winner of Dubai’s HIPA Photography Prize. Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong’s photo of a partially blind Vietnamese woman carrying her baby was derided for representing yet another “poverty porn” contest winner before it was suggested that the image was staged by photographer Ab Rashid.

Ong defended his claim that the image was not staged to the Malaysian daily The Star, saying, “In this trip to Vietnam, we (the photographers) went to the rice field and there was a mother (who had her children with her) that passed by. We never told her to stand up or sit down.”

The circumstances that led to the photo are largely irrelevant. HIPA has no restriction in their contest rules that would prohibit staging, nor does the contest adhere to any photojournalistic ethics despite a jury selection throughout the years that has a bias towards photojournalists.

Photo by Edwin Ong Wee Kee

Yet we feel duped, and 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 photographers 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 feel outraged because “poverty porn” is a reliable trope for winning photo contests – even one with the theme of “Hope” where no hope is to be found. A glimpse at the previous winners of HIPA certainly support this claim despite having a rotating jury of some of the world’s best photographers who are supplementing their meager photo-related income with judging.

We feel disgusted because the subject is a brown woman. Never mind that Ong is brown because brown and black people are fully capable of committing the sin of exploiting their own just like white people.

We feel repugnance at a contest culture that often rewards unethical behavior, and allows  contest organizers to build their business on the scam of contest entry fees. Never mind that this particular contest offers a total prize package of $450,000. The $150,000 Grand Prize is too big for this photo, for this photographer. He ought to share it.

But it’s hypocritical to impugn contest culture while simultaneously consuming most of our photography diet through a game-ified app on a 4-inch screen that algorithmically encourages and rewards “likes.” We’re sometimes more concerned with vertically scrolling as fast as possible to catch up with our feed than actually viewing photography.

We are competitive creatures living in a world where contest promoters and apps prey upon our vanity and search for validation. The same people who decry contests use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to build their own followings while chasing retweets and likes of their own.

Contests are problematic. The celebration of suffering is amoral. Large monetary prizes cause some people to act unethically. But contest popularity is merely a symptom of the Information Age optimized for the id. Of course, we should strive as a community for ethical standards, but it’s inaccurate to lay blame solely on Ong for taking and submitting the picture when the entire ecosystem is suspect.

Hopefully some of the online discussion in the wake of the contest will cause photographers, juries and contest organizers to reconsider “poverty porn” in contest culture. And perhaps HIPA can consider some ethical guidelines for future incarnations. And if nothing else, maybe the increased awareness of the world’s richest photo contest will attract a whole new wave of photographers doing important, long-term work thereby rendering discussion of poverty tourism moot.


Our latest podcast takes a more irreverent look at photo contest.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: The Problem Isn’t the Photo Contest, It’s Us – PhotoShelter Blog – The Click
  2. B rett at 11:46 pm

    “We feel disgusted because the subject is a brown woman. Never mind that Ong is brown because brown and black people are fully capable of committing the sin of exploiting their own just like white people.”

    I’m pretty disgusted at this comment. That’s one of the most racist things I’ve read in a long time. Are you implying that white people are some-how the leaders in exploiting people? How many white people can you see in that photo? Was this comment really necessary, does it add to the overall point of the article at all?

    There are poor people of all races, that are exploited by by wealthy people of all races.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 11:32 am

      “There are poor people of all races, that are exploited by by wealthy people of all races.”

      That is the point of my statement.

  3. Shelly Glaser at 10:29 pm

    Perhaps the price should have gone (at least in part) to the “model” who contributed a sugnificant part of the impact of the photograph, and who, undoubtly, needs all the help she can get.

    • Sandy at 2:21 pm

      I think Shelly has a great point!! Perhaps a way to fix this culture that we have all created and continue to add to the problem is to make the photo contest less about the prize money, and more about the money going to the photographer’s cause! The winning photographer would still get recognition, and maybe a much smaller amount of prize money and the biggest prize goes to whatever cause the photographer highlights in their winning photo.

      • Wayne S. at 8:11 am

        What did the lady and her babies receive for their participation in “human awareness”? This image shows reality of life but it also should encourage others to help and pray for those whose reality of life mite be britened
        by our compassion for them.
        “To much is given much is required”

    • Kelly at 2:38 pm

      I agree. Yes being a photographer myself there is so much belittled by the “lucky shits” of the automatic settings used by people. But reaslistically the camera is only guessing at what setting to use. Most times it’s a hit and a miss. But the real photographers that know their craft should be compensated for the years of training put into their craft.

      But on the flip side, the models should always be paid.

  4. Ron at 4:29 pm

    The heart is deceitfully wicked, who can know it?
    An image should challenge the viewer to consider the joy, hope, loss, paradox, and life’s sting of death. This can bring a spirit if thankfulness. Thankfulness is the beginning point of a selfless light. Why? Thankfulness has an object other than self . . . Photography by definition is other centered.

    Those who shape culture by image articulation bare a significant responsibility to possess a character-driven lifestyle. If what we see is what we get, what we photograph is what we become.

    What do we desire to become? Remember, the heart is deceitfully wicked, who can know it? Only God knows the motivation behind images captured and then edited for our reality. Perhaps we should consider what He sees before we squeeze the trigger. All things don’t need to be seen twice.

    Perhaps this is our vanity to be omniscient, all knowing, a characteristic reserved for God alone.

  5. David Lyons at 6:16 am

    This is simply hobbyist photo tourism masquerading as “the concerned photographer”. Without a meaningful context the image is meaningless. I used to be happy to call myself a professional photographer and with the fascinating worlds I walked through. The self-centred interests of the photo agencies and the media markets and of these cynical, superficial competitions now make me ashamed of what has become of my profession. The worst crime about self interest communication is that its is ultimately sterile and profoundly boring.

  6. Greg Reichelt at 7:03 pm

    I’m not familiar with photos contests so I won’t comment on the contests themselves, however I will comment on some things that were written by the author of the article. I used to be critical of photos that appeared to be natural but were staged. In this case, the only thing that bothers me is that the photographer was dishonest when he was asked if it was staged. My definition of a good photo is one that invokes some sort of insightful feeling without having to analyze it. By that standard this is an excellent photo. The photo invokes a feeling in me that makes me realize how much poverty is in the world and how much material wealth I have. It also makes me feel how impermanent wealth really is.
    My aspiration is to make photos of “what is” and I want the photos to arouse a feeling in the viewer. I have been in workshop situations where it feels like a herd mentality. Good workshop instructors can help prevent that feeling for participants, however it’s ultimately up to the photographer. I had a photography instructor teach that photography should be used as a means of connection as opposed to being a means of disconnection. I’m very uncomfortable staging people for photos, however when I remind myself that the intent is to connect with them and making photos is secondary, the fear subsides. When there is not connection, the photos appear contrived, but when there is connection the photo appears genuine, whether it is at a workshop or not, or if it is staged or not. We don’t know what the intent of the photographer was, maybe he had a connection to the woman and/or child and maybe he didn’t. We can’t assume he didn’t because it was a workshop situation and the photo was staged.
    The author said that the woman is being exploited because she and her child are brown. How do we define when somebody is being exploited? Would she have been exploited if she was white or middle-class? How does this differ from a workshop where photographers are photographing nude women? Are they being exploited? Are workers who get paid minimum wage while the CEO is making millions being exploited? Where is the line of exploitation? Is exploitation in the eye of the beholder? Is it relative? I’ve made photos in workshop situations when I felt that I was exploiting the person that I was photographing, when I have a creepy feeling like that I do not show those photos. I don’t have the answers to these questions however I consider these questions often. I would not hesitate to show the Vietnamese woman and child if I made that photo, a lot of good can come from it.
    Instead of judging others and society for being drawn to images of poverty, perhaps we should ask why we are drawn to images of poverty. Maybe it’s because compassion is part of our true nature.

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