Sony World Photography Awards Accused of Censorship After Pulling Hong Kong Protest Photos

The Sony World Photography Awards is being accused of censorship by the photojournalist community this week after the renowned competition pulled down multiple photo series depicting the pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong, blaming the photos’ “sensitive nature.”

The story first broke in the Hong Kong Free Press, after photographer Ko Chung-ming pointed out that his series titled Wounds of Hong Kong, a finalist in the Documentary category, had been taken down shortly after the World Photography Organization announced the finalists of the 2020 Sony World Photography Awards.

Chung-ming initially believed that the website had been hacked, until he realized that two other series related to the protests—the shortlisted Documentary series Battleground Hong Kong by David Butow and shortlisted Portrait series Hong Kong Protesters by Adam Ferguson—had also been removed.

Chung-ming’s dramatic photos depict injuries sustained by Hong Kong protesters:

When the photographer reached out to the WPO for clarification, he was told that his images had been “temporarily taken down” as part of a standard review process that takes place whenever someone raises concerns. A WPO spokesperson expanded on this in a statement to the HKFP, explaining that they receive complaints about certain finalists and shortlisted images “each year” after the shortlist is announced.

“In each and every such case we take these concerns seriously and the images in question will always be temporarily made unavailable on our platform until we complete the review process,” said the spokesperson.

Shortly after the story began to gain traction online, the webpage for Wounds of Hong Kong was restored, as was Adam Ferguson’s Portrait series Hong Kong Protesters—apparently they were found to be “in-line” with the contest’s Terms and Conditions. However, the controversy continues.

Mr. Chung-ming’s images were only partially restored—as of this writing, there are only four images up, down from five two days ago and nine images originally—with all of the more graphic images missing. And while Ferguson’s portrait series seems to have been restored in its entirety, the most dramatic of the three series that were pulled down, Butow’s Battleground Hong Kong, is still redirecting to an “Access Denied” page that requires a login:

David Butow’s series Battleground Hong Kong is still down.
A cached version of the page, captured by Google Cache on February 19th at 12:42 PM Eastern Time

According to the WPO, the list of finalists hasn’t changed, and nobody is being officially pulled from the competition, but the removal of all three photo projects related to Hong Kong in one fell swoop is seen as extremely troubling. The organization wouldn’t confirm who complained, saying only that “concerns were raised by individual members of our audience,” but it certainly seems those members were politically motivated if these were the only projects that were pulled for review.

Commenters on Ko’s Facebook page—where he’s posted the full series for all to see—seem to agree with this assertion. Alongside many emphatic “Thank Yous” for preserving the history of Hong Kong, supporters raised a skeptical eyebrow at the WPO’s reasoning

“Photos taken during a war right in the warzone has won numerous awards, but i’ve never seen any of those labelled ‘sensitive nature’,” wrote one supporter.

“This is fu**ing bulls**t,” wrote another. “Worse and much more ‘sensitive’ stuff has been put on WPO before, and the fact that they’re on targeting Hong Kong related photography seriously calls into question the integrity of the organization.”

As of this writing, the WPO has restored the Wounds of Hong Kong page, but only four of Chung-ming’s less ‘sensitive’ images are being displayed.

We’ve reached out to the WPO for comment on the original removal, the only-partial reinstatement of the series, and have also inquired as to why Battleground Hong Kong still hasn’t been restored to the website. We will update our coverage if and when we hear back.

UPDATE: A World Photography Organization spokesperson provided the following statement in response to our request for comment:

World Photography Organisation champions photography in all its forms and the Sony World Photography Awards is a celebration of photography from across the globe. The aim of the Awards is to acknowledge artists on the quality of their photographs and the technical excellence of their photography as well as providing photographers with a platform which assists in furthering their careers.

Each year, following the shortlist announcements of the Awards there are cases in which we get notified about concerns regarding some of the images listed. This can be anything that is deemed to contradict the competition’s terms and conditions. In each and every such case we take these concerns seriously and the images in question will always be temporarily made unavailable on our platform until we complete the review process.

It is our responsibility to consider the views of our audience alongside the photographer’s vision. The delicate balancing act this entails sometimes leads us to the difficult decision of removing a selection of images from a series. We deeply regret not to be able to present the full entry as submitted by photographers, however we feel it best to showcase a selection of the work and to continue to promote the photographer.

It is the decision of the photographer whether they wish to accept the curation to fit the terms of the competition or to withdraw their application to the Awards. We are incredibly saddened when a photographer decides to withdraw their work but fully respect and support their position.

We also followed up about Mr. Butow’s images, which are still not available, and the WPO spokesperson clarified that “It was David Butow’s decision to withdraw his work from the Awards,” continuing on to say that “We fully respect and support his position and his work is no longer available on our platforms.”

Update on 2/22/20: Here’s Mr. Butow’s explanation: