Former AIPP member and active volunteer, Hilary Wardaugh, shares some thoughts on how the Institute has handled the fallout regarding the alleged professional misconduct of one of its most celebrated but now former members, Ryan Schembri…
It’s not often that one of the golden boys of professional wedding photography in Australia receives negative press. According to the Sydney Morning Herald there are up to 30 wedding couples and business associates who are thousands of dollars out of pocket by the former AIPP Accredited Professional Photographer, Ryan Schembri.
We’ve heard about rogue wedding photographers in the media in regards to lesser known photographers and non-members of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP). But possibly never one with such a profile, and so highly awarded and celebrated by the AIPP.
Schembri was part of the AIPP ‘in crowd’. He was in a select group of photographers idolised by many within the Australian and global photographic community. He volunteered on the AIPP Awards Committee for over a decade and achieved the role of chairman of Jurors for the AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPA) for a few years – from 2011 until Mark Zed and Melinda Comerford were assigned the role in 2013.
The responsibility of the Chairman of Jurors is to establish whether all entries submitted are eligible and complied with the Terms and Conditions. To now know that NSW Fair Trading has received 18 complaints against the AIPP’s former APPA Chairman of Jurors, a highly prestigious and privileged position which requires ethics and trust, does not say much for the AIPP. Or for the team who groomed and installed him in that role. When Zed and Comerford retired from the chairman of Jurors role, they left a comprehensive management system in place – something that was absent when they took over the role from Schembri. Establishing even a basic management system to co-ordinate the jury of such a prestigious photo contest is a minimum. Surely its absence during Schembri’s tenure deserved to be queried by the board?
As indicated in the AIPP Constitution and By-Laws, all committees are required to produce a Terms Of References to submit to the Board. Schembri’s alleged unscrupulous business behaviour dates back at least six years (though searching online for ‘Ryan Schembri complaints’ reveals an issue from 2008) so one would assume there is documented evidence submitted to the Compliance Committee, and that information should have been passed onto the Board.
In 2014 Schembri was awarded an Honorary Life Member of the AIPP by the Honours Committee for services to the AIPP and the Awards Committee. Both the AIPP Honours and Ethics Committee and Compliance Committees contain close colleagues and mentors of Schembri. The majority of them are male and have been in those roles for over 20 years. A lack of diversity in these committees has been a key issue for a long time. With this lack of diversity, and within the confines of a close-knit and secretive community, clarity of purpose and judgement can become clouded.
But I digress: Schembri recently posted on social media that he is not perfect. In fact, he is far from it! His post comes across as somewhat egotistical and pointless. It is not an apology and he barely says he is sorry. What he should have done was apologise and provide information and deadlines regarding how he would solve the issues at hand. This post is all about ‘Ryan Schembri’, and he even used a portrait of himself to illustrate it. Most of his paragraphs start with ‘I’ or ‘My’. Negative comments have been deleted. When you read comments on his post you read messages like ‘it’ll be right, mate!’, ‘sorry you’re going through this..’
Seriously? This photographer has allegedly caused grief to many people and yet ‘he’s a good bloke?’.
When high-profile female photographer, Lisa Saad, was outed for discrepancies in her award-winning images, the online abuse and bullying towards her was relentless, hateful and vitriolic.
Why the difference? Is it because women are easy prey and Saad was not a golden boy?
Online abuse and trolling towards women is far greater than for men. Protection of mental health is paramount, unless you’re doling out abuse to women. The two issues are separate and have their own issues. However, Schembri’s alleged behaviour has a far greater impact than cheating in a photo contest. There are so many people affected by it personally, emotionally and financially.
The AIPP made a very public announcement about Saad’s membership being cancelled and her awards being rescinded. Not making a similar public statement about Schembri’s behaviour speaks volumes to the lack of equality at the AIPP. His connections are global, and he is also inextricably linked to the AIPP brand with all his awards and accolades. His AIPP membership has been cancelled but his association has tainted the AIPP brand.
For the AIPP to survive this issue untainted, it needs a proactive rhetoric and behaviour that illustrates equality and fairness for all involved!
So my questions to the AIPP are thus:
- Is Schembri still able to promote the fact that he has won many high profile AIPP awards?
- Has his Honorary Life Membership been rescinded?
- Did the AIPP Honours/Ethics Committee and Compliance Committee know of Schembri’s alleged business practices over six years? If so, why did they fail to help him, and his customers and business associates, to reach a resolution?
- The AIPP made a public statement regarding Saad and distanced themselves from her. Why hasn’t there been a similar statement by the AIPP regarding Schembri?
- Can we trust the AIPP has systems, policy and protocols in place to address issues like this when they occur?
Schembri needs to deliver the goods, services and money he promised to his clients and business associates. Expelling him from the AIPP does not help those who have disputes with him, but just allows the Institute to no longer deal with the problems he has created. It remains to be seen whether the AIPP can self-reflect on how to ensure that this does not happen again. Diversity in the ranks should mean diversity in leadership. Until parity is reached across all AIPP Committees and the Board, nothing will change.
– Hilary Wardhaugh
Hilary Wardhaugh is a Canberra-based professional photographer, and was an AIPP member between 1997-2019. At the AIPP, Wardaugh spent two decades on the ACT Council, serving as both ACT President and Policy and Planning Representative; was co-opted to the National Board between 2002-2003; held positions on the Constitution Committee, Mentoring Committee, Accreditation Committee; wrote the AIPP’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy; judged the State Awards and APPA; served as a AIPP Reflections state co-ordinator; and was a regular organiser and speaker at AIPP events.
Beyond the AIPP, Wardaugh is also a Heartfelt volunteer, a co-creator of feminist photography organisation, Loud and Luminous, and is on the verge of launching Women Photographers Australia.
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