When the Sony World Photography Awards (WPA) suddenly decided to remove photographs of Hong Kong protests from its website, it destroyed its credibility as a competition. If the decisions of the judges are being edited to avoid upsetting the Chinese government, how is this not censorship?
In a strange series of events that looked like PR fire-fighting by the competition's organizers, World Photography Organisation (WPO), the Sony-sponsored competition announced its finalists, posting galleries of the photographs.
Three photographers then had their work removed: Adam Ferguson, Ko Chung-Ming, and David Butow, all of whose work focused on Hong Kong protests. Ferguson’s work was republished, Ko’s series of ten images was reduced to four (those showing injuries remain offline), and Butow decided to withdraw his entry in the competition upon being told that five of his photographs would not be republished on the website, and that one would not be exhibited when the competition exhibition toured the world.
“It’s disappointing for me to pull the work,” Butow explained via email, “but it needs to be seen in the right context and presented in a way faithful to the original intention.” Butow has not offered any criticism of Sony or the competition, though his decision to withdraw his entry demonstrates his integrity as a photojournalist. Notably, Butow’s “Battleground Hong Kong” — the same series of photographs that WPA deems too problematic to display in full — has just been awarded first place by the White House News Photographers Association.
Those contacting the WPO to ask for an explanation were sent an official statement. This short text explained that after the shortlists are announced each year, there are cases where concerns are raised regarding certain images. “This can be anything that is deemed to contradict the competition’s terms and conditions,” WPO’s statement explained. While those images are being reviewed, they are made “temporarily unavailable on our platform until we complete the review process.”
When pushed to explain how the images breached terms and conditions, I was referred back to the statement. No information was given as to who was conducting the review. Its criteria remain unknown, and nor has there been any further information given as to who asked for the review to be carried out.
One sentence from the statement stands out: “It is our responsibility to consider the views of our audience alongside the photographer’s vision.” In short, this is censorship; the photographs are being filtered according to whether they are politically acceptable. When asked if WPO agreed that it was censorship, there was no reply.
Given that the judges — well versed in the competition’s ethical guidelines and terms and conditions — selected these images and put them through to the shortlist, it seems very likely that these finalists created problems for WPO only after their publication.
Of the many questions that remain unanswered, perhaps the most intriguing is where the pressure came from. Is it possible that WPO announced the shortlist only for Sony to suddenly realize that certain photographs may disrupt its potential to sell Playstations in China? China accounts for 13% of Sony’s sales (page 37) and sponsoring the dissemination of images that portray demands for democracy would have implications, especially at a time when US-China trade friction has already caused a slew of problems for this global corporate behemoth.
It's also worth noting that other WPA partners might also have objected. Eurostar carries a large number of Chinese passengers and advertizes extensively in China. Dorsett Hospitality International has ten hotels in Hong Kong and four more in mainland China. PHOTOFAIRS is part-owned by WPO and is an annual fair held at an exhibition center in Shanghai.
As a privately-operated competition, the World Photo Awards is under no obligation to be transparent, and nor does it have to answer questions when it comes to censorship. However, if it wants to run a competition that carries any legitimacy, transparency should be a priority, and no topic should be proscribed. If WPO and its corporate sponsors are censoring images from the Hong Kong protests, it is at best pandering to the government that is seeking to repress them, and at worst denying their brutal reality.
At a time of fake news and the vulnerability of freedom of expression, any organization that threatens to undermine news reporting should be condemned universally by photographers around the world. The WPO may not be a news organization, but if it wants to run a global competition with a category entitled “Documentary,” there needs to be greater honesty in how its judges are working, how images are considered, and how finalists are chosen.
Failing that, it needs to publish a list of topics that are too politically sensitive for Sony and other partners to lend their names to. Past finalists and winners have documented violent upheaval, so it’s certainly not the graphic content of these images that have caused them to be censored. The series “Palestinian Right of Return Protests” by photographer Mustafa Hassona won third place in last year’s competition and featured several brutal images from unrest in the Gaza Strip.
It’s worth noting that by contrast, World Press Photo — a photojournalism competition that does not have a corporate sponsor — has just published graphic images of Hong Kong violence among its finalists. This series of images by Nicolas Asfouri is among those nominated for World Press Photo Story of the Year.
Contacting all the judges of the Sony World Photo Awards, only two replied. Mike Trow, chair of the jury, explained via email that “the photographers’ positions and titles in the competition as judged by the jury and myself have remained unchanged and they will all be represented within the exhibition space.” This is at odds with what finalist David Butow was told by the WPA: that five of his series of ten images would remain offline, and one of these would never be exhibited.
Trow noted in his email that WPA is non-political. However, if the competition accepts sponsorship from corporations that are censoring the decisions of its judges in order to avoid upsetting a nation’s government, it cannot make this claim.
The judges for this competition hold prestigious positions. There are curators, cultural managers, founders of art fairs, gallery directors, festival directors, and editors. Each of them should be asking difficult questions, going public with the answers, and offering their resignation if their roles as jurors have been undermined because of corporate sensitivity to government agendas. Right now, there is a deafening silence, and jurors and sponsors should take note: the Sony World Photo Award’s legitimacy and credibility as a competition has been eroded.