Martin Stavars, The One Man in a Web of Online Photo Contests

Online photo contests are a popular way for photographers to test their skills and vie for global recognition and bragging rights. But some contests are more reputable than others. A number of popular photo contests are now at the center of a growing controversy, and all indications seem to point to the fact that there may be one mysterious man behind all of them.

The first murmurings of trouble began earlier this month, when a number of photo contest judges publicly sounded an alarm. It turns out the judges recruited for the International Photographer of the Year (IPOTY) contest weren’t asked to judge a single photo before the winners were announced.

It was also observed that the Monochrome Photography Awards had a website structure and contest format that was eerily similar to IPOTY. An anonymous Monochrome representative denied to PetaPixel that the two contests are related (admitting that there was a “partnership” that ended in 2016), but PDN soon discovered that this year’s Monochrome judges weren’t involved in picking the contest’s winners either.

So, we began digging into this mystery in an attempt to unravel the truth behind these photo contests, and one name has continually appeared in every corner we’ve looked: Martin Stavars.

Mentions of Stavars have been disappearing from the Internet in recent days, but cached versions of web pages still contain details that paint a picture of who Stavars is.

“Martin Stavars was born in 1981 in Czestochowa, Poland,” states a deleted page at ND Magazine. “He studied economics, computer science, and photography, which he ultimately focused on.”

So Stavars is a ~37-year-old Polish man who has a formal education in money, programming, and photography. He currently resides in London.

It’s also clear from mentions of Stavars online that he’s the founder and managing editor of ND Magazine which operates the Neutral Density Photography Awards (ND Awards) photo contest. Here’s a bio that Stavars has used in multiple places:

The tagline on the ND Awards homepage states: “Be internationally recognized in the world of photography with ND Awards.” Like IPOTY and the Monochrome Awards, the ND Awards is pay-to-play: photographers pay fees of $15 to $30 to enter a single photo in the contest (and $10 for additional photos).

A reverse IP lookup reveals that Stavars’ personal website, ND Magazine, and the ND Awards are all hosted on the same server. It also shows the server hosts the domain name, which doesn’t point to any website. But a cache search of that domain reveals a server directory listing captured in 2014:

This finding suggests that Stavars originally hosted the Monochrome awards on his own server before moving it to its own at some point since 2014.

Now here’s where things get interesting: as recently as November 2017, the ND Magazine website listed a group of online photo contests in its footer: MonoVisions Photography Awards, ND Awards, Fine Art Photography Awards, Monochrome Awards, and International Photographer of the Year.

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine reveals that these links were completely removed from the website earlier this month, on March 15th, two days after we published our story about the International Photographer of the Year contest on the 13th.

A reverse IP lookup also reveals that International Photographer of the Year and MonoVisions Photography Awards are currently hosted on the same server.

Interestingly enough, Stavars has been listed as a jury member for at least two of these photo contests without any mention him being affiliated in any way. He judged the Monochrome contest between 2014 and 2017 and is even currently listed at this year’s MonoVisions contest.

There’s also one glaring feature shared by all 5 of these contests linked to Stavars: none of them state who the operator of the contest is, and all of them feature a simple web form and email address as the only means of contacting the contest.

Jury members were invited to judge the IPOTY contest via an email from a man named “Sebastian Markis.” An online search for him mostly reveals a number of empty and abandoned social media profiles created under that name. One page has him linked to the Monochrome awards, but in 2015, photographer Bill Allen says he was interviewed by Sebastian Markis, who claimed to be the editor of Monovisions magazine.

Based on the evidence we’ve found, it seems likely that “Sebastian Markis” doesn’t actually exist and is simply a pseudonym used by Martin Stavars.

So why would someone anonymously start, promote, and operate online photography contests? Well, it can apparently be an extremely lucrative business.

Based on our previous calculations, taking into account number of entries and entry fees, the latest IPOTY and Monochrome contests may have received upwards of $131,400 and $223,550, respectively, from entry fees alone — thousands of photographers around the world paying “small” entry fees through PayPal adds up.

It’s difficult to determine how many entries the 5 photo contests linked to Stavars have received over the past several years, but it seems likely that these contests have collected well over $1 million in fees while paying out relatively little in cash prizes.

The ND Awards, the highest-paying of the 5 contests, has a total cash prize for winners of around $7,500.

Of course, operating a photo contest for the purpose of profit isn’t out of the ordinary these days, but there are a few aspects of this strange network of photo contests that likely won’t sit well with photographers.

First, at least two of the contests (IPOTY and Monochrome) are no longer being judged by actual jury members, which is how this whole thing turned into a scandal. If the contests had continued asking its judges to judge, perhaps the world of photography wouldn’t have looked at these contests more closely.

Second, it seems that Stavars may be judging his own photo contests, which would be a major conflict of interest.

Finally, prestigious photo contests are always operated with transparency in their operations, clearly disclosing the company or organization behind them. These five contests have been operated under a shroud of secrecy.

In summary, the five known photo contests that appear to be operated by Stavars are: International Photographer of the Year, Monochrome Awards, Fine Art Photography Awards, ND Awards, and Monovisions Photography Awards.

We’ve spent many days attempting to reach out to the contests’ “organizers” and to Martin Stavars, but all of our efforts have been met with complete silence.