The problem isn’t the photo contest, it’s us

Mar 23, 2019

Allen Murabayashi

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

The problem isn’t the photo contest, it’s us

Mar 23, 2019

Allen Murabayashi

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

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.

https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2287400064858084&id=100007643380048

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.

About the Author

Allen Murabayashi is a graduate of Yale University, the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter blog, and a co-host of the “I Love Photography” podcast on iTunes. For more of his work, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

DIPY Icon

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 responses to “The problem isn’t the photo contest, it’s us”

  1. Tj Ó Seamállaigh Avatar
    Tj Ó Seamállaigh

    and that’s why i dont like contests. Specially this one.

  2. Bhavin Shah Avatar
    Bhavin Shah

    What is the job of a photographer? One must know his/her role and make peace with it. Photographs may or may not change the present circumstances of the poor subject here but not photographing or accusing it to be staged definitely let’s public put their moral voice to sleep and not feel the burden of privilege which we so obviously enjoy at someone else’s cost.

  3. Tom Dahm Avatar
    Tom Dahm

    Thanks to the influx of instagrammers, this practice has become commonplace. Directed or not.

  4. Räymōnd Cāsilläs Avatar
    Räymōnd Cāsilläs

    What else was expected? You wanna win a prize? Shoot the most miserable, life struggling misfortune, and cheat everyone out of the award. Even if it’s NOT the best photo at all. And I’ve seen that tendency over and over again.

  5. Denis Germain Avatar
    Denis Germain

    it is not a photojournalistic contest, therefore posing or not doesn’t matter…
    so doesn’t the overprocessing (I’m going to puke) of a file…. such as this winning photo!

  6. Denis Germain Avatar
    Denis Germain

    it is not a photojournalistic contest, therefore posing or not doesn’t matter…so doesn’t the overprocessing (I’m going to puke) of a file…. such as this winning photo!

    1. Ron Avatar
      Ron

      Hey Allen: Saw that you are from Yale. That says it all. Nobody cares what you think about this photo, I’m sorry I read the article, but I also feel compelled to reply to your PC rubbish.

      Looking at this image, I felt compassion for the woman and her child, doing their best to survive. I feel a level of contempt for your boorish PC victim oriented ideation.

      Does it make you feel superior debasing this woman and her child, does it elevate you when you try to make yourself look better at her expense, when you blatantly point out people in the human condition. Your Yale education obviously did not help you mature mentally into a caring adult. The artist is to be applauded for his perspective and the lady is to be admired for her perseverence.