Outdoor Photographer awarded the grand prize of their "Great Outdoors 2021" to a composite image that violates the rules of the competition as stated on the official website. This controversy gives rise to an ethical question regarding photography competitions that fail to enforce their own rules.
The image in question, according to the photographer's own description on social media, is a composite blend of several images "shot through the transition from post-sunset to pitch dark and blended in best of the atmosphere of the evening." This style of processing 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 draws the viewer in immediately.
These techniques, though somewhat controversial, are not the issue at hand, at least in terms of their photographic legitimacy. Many competitions allow the use of such methods. This competition, however, does not. The image was awarded the grand prize (a $2,000 USD cash prize and an array of gear worth nearly the same) despite the fact that the rules of the competition bar the use of such techniques. See below for the specific verbiage, directly from the official Outdoor Photographer website.
We reached out to the photographer, who informed us that at the time of submission, they did not have a clear understanding of the rules of the competition. After receiving notification that their image would be a finalist, but prior to being awarded the grand prize, they attempted to reach out to the administrators to withdraw the submission from consideration, admitting fully that the image did not qualify. At the time of our correspondence, they had received no response or acknowledgement of the attempt to withdraw.
We also reached out to Outdoor Photographer for comment. See their statement below.
The photographer, Shashank Khanna, did indeed attempt to contact us to advise us of this prior to the final judging and announcement of the contest winners. Unfortunately, his email was misfiled 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 our contest entrants, 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 are elevating the Second Prize and Third Prize winners to First Prize and Second Prize respectively and awarding the Third Prize to photographer George Garcia for his image, “Barren Valley Sunset.”
While their response seems fair enough, the issue does not rest here. There is a greater ethical issue at hand regarding the administration of photography competitions. We have been in correspondence with many other photographers who were upset at the outcome of this competition and who made attempts to reach out to the administration, yet received no response. The majority of entrants presumably submitted images that fall within the established rules of the competition, and they paid the submission fees under the assumption that the competition administrators would make a reasonable attempt to enforce the rules. The competition website even suggests as much.
As part of the judging process, our judges at their discretion may request the original RAW file or JPEG capture for review.
Putting aside the fact that most experienced landscape photographers will immediately recognize the winning image as a composite, we have to ask why Outdoor Photographer made no attempt to enforce their own rules or verify the authenticity of the prize winning submissions. This would be the bare minimum when we consider the ethical demands of regulating a paid-entry photography competition. Ideally, however, verification will take place as early as possible in the judging process to ensure that non-qualifying images are not being compared to images that abide by the rules. When anything goes, it is much easier to create a visually impactful image. It is clear that verification is a critical step, however it is also a resource-intensive (i.e. expensive) process. We have to ask whether any competition choosing to omit this process has done so simply in order to reduce overhead costs. Considering the relatively high cost of entry, the relatively low value of prizes and the fact that unlimited entries are allowed, presumably they have the budget to pay someone to verify submissions. There are many photography competitions, such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Natural Landscape Photography Awards with even stricter submission guidelines, yet still do a thorough job enforcing rules and verifying images.
In addition to these ethical concerns, Outdoor Photographer's "Great Outdoors Photo Contest" does not place any sort of limit on quantity of submissions. This means that those with greater financial means can submit an unlimited amount of images, affording themselves a clear advantage. This is less of an ethical concern and more an issue of general fairness, which the community expects these sort of competitions to strive for.
When we consider the facts of this story, we begin to gain an understanding of the ethical issues at hand with photography competitions. We encourage our readers to read the rules closely prior to giving money to any competition, even if they are organized by established and trusted institutions. The judgement process is often not as fair as it may appear. Luckily, there are some questions we can ask ourselves before we enter into any competition to ensure it is administered fairly:
- What level of post-processing do they allow?
- Do they enforce these rules via raw file verification?
- How early in the judgement process does this verification take place?
- Do they limit quantity of submissions?
- Is the administration responsive to questions and e-mails?
Photography competitions are an important institution in the photography community. They drive the development of the art form, and when administered fairly, they are a place where the community can come together and enjoy one another's work. This makes it all the more important that we place a demand on the organizations that administer these competitions to do so with fairness, transparency and accountability.