The Sony World Photo Awards Has Lost Its Credibility as a Competition

The Sony World Photo Awards Has Lost Its Credibility as a Competition

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.

View this post on Instagram

1. A man holds a poster in Shatin, Hong Kong, as people gather to sing a protest song, on 11 September 2019. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 2. Students cross a road to school after participating in a human-chain rally, in Hong Kong, on 12 September 2019. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 3. Riot police run towards protesters on Nathan Road in Hong Kong, on 1 December 2019. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 4. A woman holds up an umbrella (a symbol of protest) during protests in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, on 1 October 2019. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ‘Hong Kong Unrest’ by Nicolas Asfouri, Denmark, Agence France-Presse (@afpphoto). One of three World Press Photo Story of the Year nominees. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Protests began to be held in Hong Kong at the end of March in response to government proposals to amend existing legislation and allow extradition to mainland China. Anti-government demonstrations gathered momentum over the following weeks as pro-democracy groups united, with students playing a large role in protests and in human-chain rallies. On 12 June, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered around the Legislative Council building ahead of a debate on the extradition laws, and met with violent opposition from police. Protests continued to escalate, both in frequency and size, as did police counter-measures. The authorities banned the wearing of face masks, and at a demonstration on 1 October, the day marking the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the People’s Republic of China, police fired live ammunition at protesters for the first time. After initially proposing postponements and amendments to legislation, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam eventually announced that she would withdraw the bill. This was done on 23 October, but protesters’ demands had broadened to include implementation of genuine universal suffrage and release of arrested protestors, and unrest continued into 2020. ⠀ - ⠀⠀ The 2020 Photo Contest & 2020 Digital Storytelling Contest nominees have been announced! We’re sharing the nominated photos in alphabetical order. ⠀⠀⠀ Discover the stories that matter, chosen by an independent jury by following the link in our bio. ⠀⠀⠀ The winners will be announced on 16 April. ⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2020 #worldpressphoto

A post shared by World Press Photo Foundation (@worldpressphoto) on

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.

Log in or register to post comments

24 Comments

Edward Blake's picture

Sony manufactures in China, and China is a massive market; added to this, the Chinese government has demonstrated complete willingness to apply economic penalties to companies for political purposes.

Anyone who does not comprehend the commercial/political realities here is naive.

Rohan Gillett's picture

Japan has so many factories in China now, how can they not be influenced? And we only need to look at how Japan has reacted to coronavirus to see proof of that.

Just me's picture

Not so fast.
There not so many brands option for camera and video camera.
.
Let says that China ban all Sony products. (Phone, TV, camera and so on)
Do you really think China will not suffer also on their own market for doing so? From medical resources to almost any digital equipment.
All Chinese made phones or CCTV camera are using Sony sensor.
.
What about Facebook? It's completely blocked in China; still 10% of their revenue are from Chinese companies advertising there. The irony of China claim versus the real world.
.
Is Google; with all their products banned from China is really doing bad business right now?
.
Samsung have no more factories in China; is that so much a problem for them?
.
Sony have so much great and unique products; they should not bend for political reasons. This is a very short sighted vision.
Today they block pictures of protesters; tomorrow, it's tattoo, church, piercing, die hair...
(This is actually already the case for TV show in China).
There is no limit on this, and at the end, you win or loose nothing except your integrity.
.
I will agree that these pictures should not be available within China.
And China knows how to block a website. This is something I can't argue with.
But blocking them outside of their reach for the rest of the world to see is way too much and start to be scary if they control what you can see in your own country.
.

"Sony have so much great and unique products"

Such as....? Sony makes great imaging sensors and video game consoles. That's about all they're truly great in these days and neither is irreplaceable as there are other companies that produce imaging sensors (mostly lesser quality) and mobile gaming far outpaces console gaming in China.

Simon Patterson's picture

"Photo awards" and "credibility" never fitted together, anyway. Photo awards have only ever been for marketing purposes.

No credibility has been lost here, because there was no credibility to begin with.

Jeff Walsh's picture

When has ANY award been about credibility? They are ALL completely subjective, inconsistent, and swayed by every possible variable. Photo awards are about one of two things: affirmation & marketing. You either want to feel the sense that a community of people felt you were the best in a subjective and limited field, or you want an award so you can add a couple of 00's to the end of your pricetag. However, never in all of ever has a photo award been about credibility.

Tony Clark's picture

The term "politically acceptable" is amusing, I assume the Chinese Government has their own definition of truth and don't get me started on Intellectual Property.

Just me's picture

Thanks for screening these photos.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think it's just as well that social and political issues not be included in this contest, anyway. To me, photography is an art form, a way of expressing what we think of as being beautiful. It should focus on the aesthetic value of things and scenes, and show things that are beautiful and pleasing to the eye ..... and not try to "stir the pot" over human issues and their disagreements and their injustices.

Photography is about documenting the world around you. You sound pretty privileged if that’s all your photography is about. I’m not being divisive, my photography sounds similar to yours, but that doesn’t make theirs worth less.

Dan Marchant's picture

We disagree Tom. Photography, like any other art form is about saying what the artists thinks. I don't think Picasso's Guernica or Munch's The Scream have anything much to do with beauty and neither does Napalm Girl. Does that mean they aren't art?

Tom Reichner's picture

Hey, Dan!

Those things are certainly art. They're just art that I have no appreciation for, and no interest in making myself. Political and social issues are utterly uninteresting to me. Couldn't care less about them.

The human world pretty much sucks and is uninteresting, while the non-human natural world is extremely beautiful and interesting and fascinating, and deserves to be the basis for all manner of artistic works. Just my opinion, of course, but I do feel very strongly about these things and my opinion is a bold, loud one.

I don't really see the problem. Every photography competition has guidelines and submission criteria and it's not unusual for some of these to be informed by the intended audience. In essence, every competition censors certain submissions by disqualifying them from consideration. You just have to keep that in mind when you recognize the winner of a contest. The winning entry is never "the best photo". It's "the best photo out of the entries that were allowed in the competition". Hell, it's not even that. It's really ,"The photo that x group of particular judges liked the most out of the entries that were allowed in the competition".

Tony Wu's picture

While judging is subjective, but the criteria should be clearly stated. If they are picking out certain photos to censor, that's bias-and in this case, political.

Tin Man Wong's picture

Sony has the right to remove entries they deem not appropriate. Don't politicize the contest.
By the way, these are not protesters but rioters that bring destruction of Hong Kong real democracy. They would beat up people with different voice, they set fires in train stations and public property, they throw bricks to kill an innocent elder, they throw Molotov cocktails to police and bystanders, one of them set fire on another elder with different opinion. If people think they are innocent protesters then they are dead wrong!

Edward Blake's picture

Right on, Comrade. Send them to the camps.

Andy Day's picture

The WPA is politicising the contest by censoring images.

You can also argue that any photo contest is political because of how it curates and disseminates images. Every platform that has an audience is inherently politicised whether it is intentional or otherwise. What is recorded and then published is unavoidably a political process.

Furthermore, whether they are protesters or rioters is irrelevant. If anything, censoring the images does not help the argument that they are the latter.

China is the 800 pound gorilla that does whatever it wants and woe unto anyone who makes it mad. Nobody has ever won against China. Sony will sacrifice its once-prestigious contest (and the fight for democracy and freedom) to save the company. No surprise there. Only somebody with nothing to lose would fight back and lose. That’s the world we live in, unfortunately.

I think that this is a very simplistic and naive view of the situation. Unfortunately, it seems to be an all too common one.

Studio 403's picture

I don’t want to be a critic of Sony. A public company is about shareholder value. Regardless of the rhetoric, it is about the money. What seems to be lost , sadly, truthful story telling in photography, etc. Noting my own personal greed in my life, I won’t judge Sony. I have lived long enough to see my own hypocrisy. A ancient book says this, “honesty cannot enter in, truth has stumbled in the streets” (paraphrase). Not buying Sony products is a viable way to protest. I know that won’t happen, Sony makes great products. So I live with a quality beast.

The NBA grovelled after Daryl Morey of Rockets expressed support of freedom protesters, Twitter and other tech giants censor their content, Disney and other studios (including Sony pictures)
carefully edit their films to avoid offending the Chinese government.

When there's money on the line.....

SRIDIP NAG's picture

Yes, it is censorship, by the Chinese govt, but that's how it's done. Manufacturer's from all over the world are tied into their system. Getting cheap products made comes at a price.

Just me's picture

Because a manufacturer have few factories in China, they can't support a pictures competition where HK protests are displayed, anywhere in the world?
That's quite a stretch!