Photo in Vietnam not staged, Malaysian prize-winning lensman asserts

By Bao Lam, Thuy Quynh   March 20, 2019 | 07:08 pm PT
Photo in Vietnam not staged, Malaysian prize-winning lensman asserts
Mother's Hope (L) and behind-the-scenes picture (R). Photo acquired by VnExpress
Edwin Ong Wee Kee has asserted that his $120,000 prize winning photo was taken spontaneously in Vietnam.

Malaysian Edwin Ong Wee Kee, whose photo won the Grand Prize at the Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) this year, has refuted allegations that his winning photo was staged.

He told Malaysian newspaper The Star Online: "In this trip to Vietnam, we (the photographers) went to the rice field and there was a mother (with two children) 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."

None of the photographers had told the woman to stand up or sit down, and she was still sitting there after they left, he added.

Ha Lee, another Malaysian photographer in the group, also stressed that the photo was taken spontaneously and on-the-spot without any pre-arrangement.

Lee said the woman and her children only happened to pass by the group and went to look at what they were doing out of curiosity. The photographers then asked if they could take a photo of her with her children, to which she said okay.

Kee also told The Star Online that he had submitted both the raw and edited versions of the winning photo for the competition, so the judges got to look at both photos before giving the prize.

"The accusation of the photo being staged does not upset us photographers," he said, stressing that there were many others who also witnessed the photo being taken.

Speaking with VnExpress, photographer Duong Quoc Binh said that before making a judgement as to what’s right and wrong, it was necessary to understand the work of photographers and their purpose. 

According to Binh, Wee Kee was not taking the picture in a journalistic context, so should not be bound by the journalistic principles of honesty, accuracy, and no staging. It would not be appropriate to take a framework for one field to apply to another. 

"The definition of ‘staging’ is subject to wide interpretation. However, it can be narrowed down: whether a photo was staged or not depends on whether the photographer has interfered with the subject of the photo," he said. 

"In any event, should this photo have been staged, it would only violate the rules of journalistic photography," Binh added.

Kee's photo, titled Mother's Hope, which captured the H’Mong mother with a speech disorder holding her children, was awarded the grand prize of $120,000 at HIPA's award ceremony in Dubai last week.

However, the prize sparked controversy after another photographer shared a behind-the-scenes picture of the winning photo being taken, which showed many photographers taking pictures of the woman and her children at the same time and from the same angle.

This photograph led to accusations that the winning photo was staged. While HIPA does not have any regulation disallowing staged photos, the fact that one of many similar photos won a lot of money has angered many photographers, critics noted.

HIPA organizers have offered no feedback on the incident.

With the annual total prize money of $450,000, HIPA offers the largest prize money among photography awards in the world.

It is also one of the most inclusive photography awards, charging no fees and having no entry barriers including age, photographic status, gender or nationality.

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