Does Behind-the-Scenes Photo Prove This $120,000 Award-Winning Picture was Staged?

Does Behind-the-Scenes Photo Prove This $120,000 Award-Winning Picture was Staged?

An international, $120,000 prize-winning picture praised as “document[ing] an intense humanitarian moment” is having its integrity questioned after a behind-the-scenes photo revealed it may have all been staged.

This year, the theme of the Hamdan International Photography Awards (HIPA) was “Hope,” with the grand prize being awarded to Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee after he snapped a portrait of a mother carrying her two children.

In interviews, Mr Kee told journalists that the snap was “unplanned” and came during an “unforeseen stop.” The award committee described the picture as an “intense humanitarian moment,” adding that it captured “The feelings of a Vietnamese mother whose speech disorder did not prevent her from feeling hopeful and evoking a sense of strength for her children.”

However, a new photo has surfaced that tells an entirely different story. In it, the woman – the subject of Mr Kee’s winning image – can be seen, stationary and surrounded by a number of photographers, all of whom are taking her portrait from various angles. Needless to say, there are likely hundreds of different versions of Mr Kee’s photo. Photographer and Street Photo BD Magazine founder Ab Rashid shared the image, bringing to light the real story behind the winning photo.

The international competition, based in Dubai, attracted 19,000 people from 121 countries in its second year, and has a total prize fund of $450,000.

Lead image credit: Ab Rashid.

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32 Comments

Jeff Walsh's picture

Dude lied, which implies he had something to hide. The BTS photo shows the real story that at the very least this was not as "candid" as it was implied. Based only on the BTS shot given here, I don't think we can say for certain if it was staged, but at the very least, this shot was manipulated by having so many photographers there. No one stays "natural" with 20 people snapping shots like you just won the super bowl.

Tim Gallo's picture

I dont think this image is about "natural". What if the image was unplanned? A group of photogs were on a photo walk, saw a poor woman... gave her money, took pictures. How was the shot manipulated? Did it change somehow her state? Unless there are proof that she is an actress, i think staged is not proper word... and who knows what was photographers "intent". If its all to get "dramatic" picture for the sake of "dramatic" - its a good topic for discussion. But if not, than maybe we are too hard on the photographer itself. Instead we should talk about state of documentary, journalism, photo awards.

And what if the award itself use this picture to create better condition for poor people of Vietnam? Though i doubt that.

I think this topic needs a better writer, better journalism and better investigating. People rush to conclusions...

Michael Jin's picture

Assuming your scenario, it changed her state in that she stopped and posed for a picture when she might have otherwise kept on walking. Unless she happens to be the type of person that just randomly carries her child around and strikes dramatic poses in the middle of nowhere for a hobby, that is...

Tim Gallo's picture

what? so you telling me that asking a person for a portrait makes it less documentary and it does not deserve an award, because it alters their state somehow? is there such thing as a not staged portrait then? does asking her for a picture makes her somehow unfit to represent people with speech disorder, f.e.x.?

i think it would be worse if he was shooting her with 400mm from somewhere as if she was some kind of a bird. but thats what a lot of people do.

btw, you can accuse anyone to be a type that walks for the purpose of being photographed if that person being photographed for some reason. but such accusations only demonstrate lack of empathy.
do you really think that this women, with speech disorder is such a type?

Michael Jin's picture

"what? so you telling me that asking a person for a portrait makes it less documentary and it does not deserve an award, because it alters their state somehow? is there such thing as a not staged portrait then? does asking her for a picture makes her somehow unfit to represent people with speech disorder, f.e.x.?"
Do we even know that she had a speech disorder or is that just another lie added by the photographer? The problem with lying is that once one lie is uncovered, it throws everything else into question. If he's going to lie about this, why not lie about hiring someone to play dress-up? Is that even her kid? I have no problem with staging portraits or asking people to pose for you, but don't lie about it if you do.

"i think it would be worse if he was shooting her with 400mm from somewhere as if she was some kind of a bird. but thats what a lot of people do."
This is irrelevant to the topic at hand. It's not a binary thing. Plenty of people take spontaneous portraits with a 28mm lens. Others will take spontaneous portraits with a 600mm lens. That is neither here nor there as far as the issue being argued is concerned and you're attempting to draw a false dichotomy because you know your argument is non-existent.

"btw, you can accuse anyone to be a type that walks for the purpose of being photographed if that person being photographed for some reason. but such accusations only demonstrate lack of empathy."
I have no idea WTF you're talking about at this point.

"do you really think that this women, with speech disorder is such a type?"
Again, do we even know that she had a speed disorder or is it just another one of the photographer's lies? If he acted honestly from the start and explained how his photograph was made, nobody would question these other details. Steve McCurry, for all of his flaws, never went around pretending that the "Afghan Girl" photo was a spontaneous moment he captured.

Bottom line is that I think most people are not arguing that he shouldn't stage a photo, pose a subject, or even ask a random stranger to take a photo. They're arguing that he should have been honest about the circumstances rather than fabricate some tale in order to try to score points for a contest. Plenty of people walk the streets and ask for portraits. Plenty of people stage entire scenes. Nobody gives them crap because they don't lie about what they're doing.

Tim Gallo's picture

Do we even know that she had a speech disorder or is that just another lie added by the photographer? The problem with lying is that once one lie is uncovered, it throws everything else into question.
You either believe in people or you dont :)

If he's going to lie about this, why not lie about hiring someone to play dress-up? Is that even her kid? I have no problem with staging portraits or asking people to pose for you, but don't lie about it if you do.
We dont know about how much he lied. You only assume. But people waaay to far to shame other people for lies without properly looking themselves in the mirror.

>I have no idea WTF you're talking about at this point.
sorry, my english is not perfect.
here is my wtf moment: Unless she happens to be the type of person that just randomly carries her child around and strikes dramatic poses in the middle of nowhere for a hobby, that is...
lol.

>Again, do we even know that she had a speed disorder or is it just another one of the photographer's lies?
it seems your best argument is your weakest. i dont know. she still looks like a strong mother to me. and i think we are too deep in the rabbit hole right now.
so thanks for a great talk. had a lot to think about.

Michael Jin's picture

"Unless she happens to be the type of person that just randomly carries her child around and strikes dramatic poses in the middle of nowhere for a hobby, that is..."
That was clearly sarcasm because nobody actually does this.

The point is that this photographer lied. It doesn't matter how much or how little. Once you get caught lying, you lose credibility. If he came out from the start and said, "This was a woman I came across while I was with a group of other photographers and we asked her to pose for some pictures." then nobody would say anything. Instead, the photographer concocted some bullshit story in order to try to win a contest (which he did win) and unfortunately for him, he got caught bullshitting.

I don't care who this woman is, whether she's an actor or whether she was a mother with a speech disability. My only problem with this entire scenario is that the photographer decided to lie about the circumstances surrounding the photo rather than just be upfront about it.

Unless you're trying to say that photographers should not be honest about how their photographs are taken, then there's no argument to be had.

Exactly right, represented by the 'photographer' as an'...“unplanned” and came during an “unforeseen stop.” ...' . Clearly it was not. Fraud. End of story.

Tim Gallo's picture

read the comments below :) since your "clearly" is quite "foggy" :).

Michael Jin's picture

Maybe not staged in the sense that someone was hired and a scene was set, but there's no way that you have a bunch of photographers snapping shots and not one of them is coaching her on how to pose.

I think I agree. Staged seems like the wrong word. Staged implies a complete fraud. Maybe this could defined as "set up" or "coached" or "posed" or something.

Tim Gallo's picture

so what if she was coached? does it weakens her position somehow? you can direct a person, or you can change your angle to make it look more dramatic, both are completely ok for the purpose of creating an image. now if they asked her to pretend that she is in pain or she is very sad, when in reality she was this merry go lucky woman - than maybe yeah, we have something to discuss. nothing serious though. but we will never know, again because there is no proper investigation. people just want to gossip... if only this gossip had some common sense.

Michael Jin's picture

"so what if she was coached? does it weakens her position somehow?"
If she was coached, be honest and say that she was coached. I think the fact that the photographer lied about the circumstances surrounding the image speaks for itself in regard to how the revelation that she was probably coached to pose would affect the perception of his image.

How do you know if she was coached or not?

Michael Jin's picture

There are at least nine photographers surrounding her. When's the last time you've seen nine photographers around a subject who is modelling for them without at least ONE of them giving some sort of direction?

Of course I don't know for a fact since I wasn't there, but I think we can all agree that it's highly likely that at least one of those photographers would have been asking her to pose this way or that. That's just how photographers are in situations like this... At the same time, I don't know that it matters all that much either way since this whole incident is stupid from the photographer's submission to the judges picking such a dreary photo when the contest topic was "Hope".

I think this is just further evidence that photography contests are a joke.

Tim Gallo's picture

staged as in - does the image imply that she is an actress holding a child-actor? stages as if she is not actually poor and trying to provide for herself and somebody documented that?... staged as if it was all preplanned to win a photo contest?

what do you imply with the word - staged? does it make less documentary? or does it makes the image more weak? oh, you dont have an opinion? you, Jack, appears to be self-taught... you must have self-taught yourself to have an opinion? or you just copy-pasting this news from somewhere else? there are likely hundreds of different versions of the same news out there lol. see what i did there?

and "needless to say" there are thousands of pictures of everything now... same mountains, same locations, same people, same Ganges river... journalists and documentary photographers go to the same war zones or places of troubled event - and there are hundred different versions of the same. but only one picture wins pulitzer or any other prize. that is "needless to say".

photography wise - if anything, the behind the picture of this image - shows two things. how a lot of people approach "documentary" photography this days.
and that one the same subject for one people maybe be sub-par, for others - award-wining photography
but it does not change the conditions of the subject... this images open a lot of discussions, its sad that not so many of them - about how should we improve state of peoples life we document. the hypocrisy of it all.

unless you really want to investigate the subject - why do you even write about it? that is "staged" journalism. oh, wait...

Kirk Darling's picture

Well said, Tim.

Well, it seems like an 'unplanned and unforeseen stop' on a organized photo tour of a bunch of guys with cameras from Malaysia through Vietnam. The tour guide seems to be the guy on the right, only one not taking a picture. So the statement might not be wrong, but also not complete. I have seen areas in VN myself and situations similar like that: women with their children sitting near the farms and fields. Nothing staged about it.
My point of critic would be that the cropping removes all context - something that only comes back in the BTS shot. If the portrait shows some humanitarian moment, then the context is required. Otherwise it is an intense moment of mother-child relationship, a different topic.

Not just the cropping, but the processing (which I think is horrible and makes her and the children look dirty), removes the context.

This is what I do not get - HIPA requires a signed model release!

Adriano Brigante's picture

My opinion on this controversy is this: An award should go to an exceptional picture. But by definition, a picture is not exceptional if there are 25 other pictures of the same subject shot in the same way in the same place at the same time. Therefore it shouldn't have won an award.

Robert Nurse's picture

But, those 25 other photos weren't submitted. Were they? I can go stand in the same spots as Ansel Adams stood and shoot all day and never turn out landscape images like his. Why? Right now, you can go to Iceland and stick your tripod legs in the very same holes where other photographers before placed their's and took otherworldly images. That doesn't mean the next guy will.

david kidd's picture

With this winning image, the jury need to see more...this image is over edit, the story is not much, the crop is to tight to see the story. Not a winning image..

Tim Gallo's picture

its actually not a bad picture, taking editing aside (which is the matter if taste and its not fine art we are talking about here). the jury probably chose from what they recieved from applicants.

I agree, the editing is over-done...the tone mapping makes her and the child looks dirty (that faux HDR look).

Rob Mitchell's picture

It's like going to make photos at a zoo and pretending you all went on safari.

Image google any of these tribes, groups, locations and you'll get a boat load of very similar images, differentiated only by the preset filters that are slapped on them.

"award winning' photo with controversy? Par for the course.

Tim Gallo's picture

so you telling me a picture from the zoo cannot be powerful? you should check hiroshi sugimoto work.
i dont think there is problem with pretending, i think there may be moral problem with intent of that pretending.

but i agree with you. in this age - too many similar images, but that is what a lot of people do. they copy. others create. we need to educate those who want to create... and dont bother much about the rest.

Robert Nurse's picture

What were the rules for photo submissions? If the submitted entry satisfied the theme "Hope", what does it matter? Now, if the rules spell out that photos must not include actors, props, coaching, prodding or otherwise be "staged" (whatever that really means), then, ok, this is a fraud. Otherwise, it's totally legitimate. Add to the fact that Mr. Kee's entry clearly went through post-processing. Since post work is an important part of making a photo what it is, do his edits not warrant some praise?

Crystal Johnson's picture

Other sources are listing that this was not staged, that the whole situation was spontaneous because they were there taking photos of the rice fields. The mother and her child came by, and they asked if they could take her photo, she willingly did, and they never posed her. This is all coming from other photographers that were there, as well as the winner. So yes, it's spontaneous as she was not their intended subject to shoot. Even after they left she was still there.

Does this mean he is a liar? Nope! Just has a way with words and he's not wrong in saying it was spontaneous. Should it have won? Eh... it's debatable, but I'm not on the panel to judge it. Does it express hope like the theme was? He did not violate their rules, so he's well within the right to win. People tend to cry foul when large sums of money can be awarded.

Laughing Cow's picture

When I see at what level the manipulation and use of poverty, and the image of poor people, can happen, to win a contest, so money, I really want to throw up ...

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