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World Photography Awards ‘censors’ Hong Kong protests

The prestigious Sony World Photography Awards has reinstated finalists’ photos depicting events from the Hong Kong protests, after being slammed for callow censorship for removing the images due to a complaint regarding their ‘sensitive nature’.

A photo by Ko Chung-ming, who is a finalist in the Sony World Photography Awards Documentary category. Andrew Chiu, a district councillor, had his left ear bitten off by a man outside Cityplaza mall in Taikoo, Hong Kong, on November 3, 2019. Photo: Ko Chung-ming.

The World Photography Organisation (WPO) went into full damage control mode this week, when Hong Kong photographer, Ko Chung-ming, discovered the link to his Documentary Category finalist images was broken. He initially thought the website had been ‘attacked’, but became concerned the WPO were censoring Hong Kong photos after finding other shortlisted images of the protests by Australian photographer, Adam Ferguson, and American photographer, David Buton, were also down.

Ko’s series, Wounds of Hong Kong, is a portrait series showing injuries and scars sustained by people participating in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Despite being ‘temporarily taken down’, the photos remain in the running for a prize.

Adam’s portrait series, Hong Kong Protesters, show youth covering their faces to represent the anonymity of the protesters, who conceal their identity with masks and helmets. David’s black-and-white series, Battleground Hong Kong, shows protesters and riot police clashing in the streets. Both photographers are ‘shortlisted’, meaning their series made it to the penultimate round and will appear in the exhibition, but were not selected as top three finalists.

This photo by Adam Ferguson became the front cover of Time Magazine. ‘A Hong Kong protestor stands for a portrait at a studio in Chai Wan, Hong Kong, on Aug. 13, 2019’. Photo: Adam Ferguson.

In a Facebook post, Ko said the WPO responded to him with this statement: ‘A concern was raised about the sensitive nature of some of the images in the series which we must take into consideration. We have temporarily taken down the images as part of a standard process which we have put in place for these type of cases until we are able to review everything in further detail.’

Ko is unsure who is the source of the complaint and what their concern may be. ‘But why should any “concerns” not be addressed by the judges at the judging phase?’ he told Hong Kong Free Press. ‘As long as the final result is up to the jury’s professional judgement, I wouldn’t say there’s censorship.’

In 2018 the three Current Affairs and News category winners’ each had images showing dead bodies, extreme suffering or violence. So what is it about wounded Hong Kong protesters that’s deemed unacceptably ‘sensitive’?

First-aider Ah Yan (alias), was hit by a tear gas canister while on duty in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, on November 2, 2019. Photo: Ko Chung-ming.

Criticism has been harsh and plentiful on the WPO Facebook page, with hundreds of commenters querying its motivations. There’s speculation as to whether the organisation faced pressure from powerful people with links to the Chinese government.

‘If you can’t accept the photos which records the reality of the world, why do you call yourself the world photography organisation?’ asked commenter, Ying Dan Ren. ‘Those are really great photos that captures the vulnerability and the strength of human beings. These moments of liberation under the dark suppressive times will be forever etched in the history of mankind, I feel sorry you can only see money and CCP instead of the real historical value. SHAMEFUL.’

According to a WPO statement, which has been pinned on every recent Facebook post, ‘concerns raised can be anything that is deemed to contradict the competition’s terms and conditions’.

‘We always take these concerns seriously and the images in question will be temporarily unavailable on our site pending the review process. There has been a review which is now complete. There have been no changes to photographers’ positions and titles in this year’s Awards.’

It seems hard to believe that every time a singular ‘concern’ is raised regarding a finalist image, the WPO swiftly removes the offending image and conducts a review, given this is the first instance, as far as we are aware, of any images ever being removed from display.

The winners of the Sony World Photography Awards will be announced on April 16.

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