Outdoor Photographer awarded the grand prize for their “Great Outdoors 2021” to a composite image that violates the contest rules as stated on the official website. This controversy raises an ethical question regarding photography contests that do not follow their own rules.
The image in question, according to the photographer’s own description on social media, is a composite mix of multiple images “shot through the transition from post-sunset to total darkness and mixed with the best of the atmosphere of the evening”. This style of treatment has grown in popularity in recent years. It incorporates photography techniques and digital post-processing techniques that allow the artist to maximize the visual impact of the final image. As you can see from the grand prize winning image below, these techniques are quite effective. The result is an impressive image that immediately attracts the viewer.
These techniques, while somewhat controversial, are not in question, at least as to their photographic legitimacy. Many competitions allow the use of such methods. This competition, however, does not work. The image won the grand prize (a $2,000 cash prize and an array of gear of nearly equal value) despite contest rules prohibiting the use of such techniques. See below for specific verbiage, straight from the official Outdoor Photographer website.
We contacted the photographer, who informed us that at the time of submission they did not have a clear understanding of the contest rules. After receiving notification that their image would be a finalist, but before receiving the grand prize, they attempted to contact the administrators to remove the submission from consideration, fully admitting that the image was not eligible. At the time of our correspondence, they had not received any response or acknowledgment of the withdrawal attempt.
We also reached out to Outdoor Photographer for comment. See their statement below.
The photographer, Shashank Khanna, indeed tried to contact us to inform us before the final judgment and the announcement of the winners of the contest. Unfortunately, his email was misclassified by our customer service team and this information was not available to our judges. We have since been in communication with Mr. Khanna, and in the interest of fairness to all of our contest participants, he has offered to withdraw his submission. We accept his withdrawal. We regret any embarrassment this has caused Mr. Khanna and commend him for his honesty and transparency. Accordingly, we elevate the Second Prize and Third Prize winners to First Prize and Second Prize respectively and award Third Prize to photographer George Garcia for his image, “Barren Valley Sunset.”
Although their answer seems fair enough, the question does not arise here. There is a bigger ethical issue regarding the administration of photography contests. We have been in correspondence with many other photographers who were upset with the outcome of this competition and who attempted to contact the administration, but received no response. The majority of entrants presumably submitted images that complied with the contest’s established rules, and they paid the submission fee assuming that the contest administrators would make a reasonable attempt to enforce the rules. The contest site even suggests so.
As part of the judging process, our judges, at their discretion, may request the original RAW file or JPEG capture for review.
Aside from the fact that most experienced landscape photographers will immediately recognize the winning image as a composite, we have to wonder why Outdoor Photographer did not attempt to enforce its own rules or verify the authenticity of the winning submissions. . This would be the bare minimum when considering the ethical requirements of regulating a paid photography contest. Ideally, however, verification will take place as early as possible in the judging process to ensure that ineligible images are not compared to images that pass the rules. When something is happening, it’s much easier to create a visually impactful image. Clearly, verification is a critical step, but it is also a resource-intensive (i.e. expensive) process. We have to wonder if a competitor who chose to omit this process did so simply to reduce overhead. Considering the relatively high cost of entry, the relatively low value of the prizes, and the fact that unlimited entries are allowed, they probably have the budget to pay someone to check the submissions. There are many photography contests, such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Natural Landscape Photography Awards with even stricter submission guidelines, while doing a thorough job of enforcing the rules and checking images.
In addition to these ethical concerns, the Outdoor Photographer “Outdoor Photo Contest” does not impose any sort of limit on the amount of submissions. This means that those with greater financial means can submit an unlimited number of images, giving themselves a clear advantage. This is less of an ethical concern than a question of general fairness, which the community expects from these types of competitions.
When we examine the facts of this story, we begin to understand the ethical issues surrounding photography contests. We encourage our readers to read the rules carefully before donating money to a contest, even if it is run by established and trusted institutions. The judging process is often not as fair as it seems. Fortunately, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves before entering a contest to ensure it is administered fairly:
- What level of post-processing do they allow?
- Do they enforce these rules via raw file verification?
- At what point in the judging process does this verification take place?
- Do they limit the amount of submissions?
- Is the administration responsive to questions and emails?
Photography contests are an important institution in the photography community. They are the driving force behind the development of the art form and, when administered fairly, they are a place where the community can come together and enjoy the work of others. It is therefore all the more important that we require the organizations that administer these competitions to do so with fairness, transparency and accountability.