A photo shot in Vietnam showing an ethnic Hmong woman carrying her sons that won the top prize of the prestigious Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) is now at the centre of controversy among the global photography community as it appears to be staged.
Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee last week won the US$120,000 grand prize at the HIPA with a stunning portrait of the Hmong woman carrying two children, which he claimed to be able to luckily capture during a trip in northeastern Vietnam.
On the written congratulations to Ong, the HIPA said his award-winning photo “documented an intense humanitarian moment.”
“The feelings of a Vietnamese mother whose speech disorder did not prevent her from feeling hopeful and evoking a sense of strength for her children.”
But one week after the award winner was named, Ong now faces controversy as his photo appears to be at least a little more planned or posed than being the result of an unexpected and “unplanned” moment as he described.
A behind-the-scenes snap of the international prize-winning picture has revealed that the photograph was apparently staged.
The photo, first posted by photographer Ab Rashid, founder of Street Photo BD Magazine, purportedly shows a crowd of photographers gathered around the very mother and children that appear in Ong’s shot.
Rashid alleges that a number of photos taken during this portrait session would look identical to the one that earned Ong the HIPA prize.
Etienne Bossot, a photography teacher and founder of Pics of Asia, a provider of small group photographic tours across Asia and especially Southeast Asia, then re-posted the behind-the-scene photo on the company’s website, headlining the post, “Are you doing it for photography or for fame?”
“Another classic photo of a photography tour group gathered around one subject, shooting the same image from almost the same angle,” he wrote in the post.
“The woman seems to pose for them, probably a staged model for the photographers who don’t want to have to work very hard for their pictures.”
Responding to an email from Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Bossot criticized the trend where “so many people travel to Vietnam and take close up photos of children and old women.”
“This is something everyone is doing, and so, in the end, we always see the same photos,” he underlined.
“It has been 40 strong years that people come to Asia to take portraits of old ladies, and it becomes boring.”
According to Bossot, these types of situation are “mostly seen with groups of Asian photographers.”
“It is very trendy nowadays for photographers to travel on tours that only stage images,” he said.
“This guarantees that the guests go home with pretty images that they can submit to competitions.”
“Most of them only want to feel pride by winning competitions. They are not interested in creativity, originality or telling the stories of the people they meet. They want pretty pictures for themselves,” Bossot criticized.
Not only international photographers like Bossot, insiders and experts in Vietnam’s photography industry have also taken to the Internet to express their disapproval and disappointment about the issue.
Edwin Ong Wee Kee and his controversial photo are like fuel added to the fire of the long-discussed controversy among professional photographers and photography enthusiasts over staged pictures being awarded big money.
However, it should be noted that Edwin Ong Wee Kee’s photo may not be deemed violation of the HIPA, given the fact that it is an international photography award, not a press photo contest, which often requires submissions of unplanned moment.
Founded in 2011, HIPA boasts the largest monetary prize among photography awards in the world.
When contacted by Malaysian online newspaper The Star, Ong refuted Bossot’s claims that the winning photo was staged and said that the photo was taken spontaneously.
Ong said, “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 then asked her whether we could take her photo of which she willingly sat down and allowed us to take her photo.
“We never told her to stand up or sit down. Even after taking photos, she was still there and didn’t move until we left,” he said.
Ong also said that he submitted both the raw and edited files of the winning photo for the competition.
“This is a very big competition where they [the judges] look at the original and edited photos. Only then a prize is given.”