Controversy Swirls Over Photo Contest Winner’s Use of Children

The photographer who was recently awarded The Environmental Photographer of the Year title has come under scrutiny for his use of children in his portfolio. The controversy has raised questions about child protection in contests and the photography industry at large.

Last week, PetaPixel reported on the winners of the 2021 Environmental Photographer of the Year (EPOTY) competition. Spanish photographer Antonio Aragón Renuncio received the top prize for his image, titled “the rising tide sons.”

The photo depicts a sleeping child inside a house that has been destroyed by coastal erosion in Ghana and, according to the EPOTY, the image raises awareness about the rising sea levels in West-African countries.

Shortly after the competition announced this year’s winners, the winning image sparked a debate on Twitter initiated by Benjamin Chesterton of Duckrabbit, a film production and training company.

“This photo that won Environmental Photographer of the Year 2021 raises so many questions,” Chesterton writes. “Why is the child sleeping in the sun? Why is the child sleeping in an abandoned house? Is it because the child is Black that the judges don’t ask these questions?”

Chesterton highlighted the lack of an ethical framework and safeguarding issues that come as a result of photographing potentially vulnerable children and then sharing the images through a contest that reserves the right to further publish, use, and profit from them.

As part of EPOTY’s rules, it is the photographer’s responsibility to obtain all necessary permission from people featured in the entry, and “all entries should be a faithful representation of the original scene.”

The competition also highlights that “entrants should understand that the objective is to remain faithful to the original experience, and to never deceive the viewer or misrepresent reality.” The latter point has raised questions about the creation of the photo and whether it was staged. This calls into question whether permission was acquired and if so, who was able to grant it as the child featured is underage.

Although the winning photograph was at the center of the discussion, Chesterton also dove into Renuncio’s portfolio as a whole and pointed out a pattern of showcasing numerous potentially staged images of Black children. Some of the photos have won other international photography awards.

The EPOTY responded to the thread and shared a link to an interview with Renuncio, however, the feature didn’t include any information about the creation of the image nor how consent and a model release were obtained.

Chesterton has also called out the lack of responses by the judges on the panel and Terry Fuller, the chief executive of one of the bodies that organized the contest as well as a judge himself.

“[My] personal opinion is that their refusal to answer very basic questions relating to editorial and child protection policies suggests there is an institutional failure to ensure the work they are awarding is legitimate and not harmful to children,” Chesterton tells PetaPixel, stating that this is something he would like the organization to address.

Furthermore, to protect the wellbeing of vulnerable and underage subjects, Chesterton calls for organizations that commission, distribute, and award photos of children to have a child protection policy that is applied irrespective of the nationality of the child. He also advocates for transparency when it comes to the process of complaints in regards to images of children that are commissioned and distributed by such organizations and asks for a clear policy on consent and external advisory bodies on the issues of race.

“I believe in the freedom to take pictures and the importance of documenting the challenges children face,” Chesterton writes in a Tweet. “I am against the exploitation of children to market the careers of photogs who should know better and orgs that have no commitment to the welfare of those children.”

Although Chesterton calls for more regulation, in a thread shared on Twitter, he recounts his own experience and notes that having the policies in place is not always enough. Having worked for a large NGO in Sierra Leone and alongside a Panos Pictures photographer, he first hand saw the images of local women being misused and the subjects misrepresented as Nigerian.

One of the contributors to the Twitter discussion, photographer Andy Barnham, also wrote an open letter to EPOTY 2021 where he asks for clarity on the situation and for more information in regards to the discussion previously mentioned by the organization.

“As a photographer I am suspicious that such images are posed and often subject those depicted to further trauma,” Barnham writes. “As a former member of the British Army […], I have experience of living in harsh conditions and do not recognize what Antonio shows.

“As such the potential staging of the image also raises concerns and I hope the photographer, the releases and background to the image were verified in addition to your competition having suitable T&Cs to ensure neither real life nor digital manipulation of a scene or frame are allowed.

“I trust the photograph was suitable vetted and investigated as rewarding images that misrepresent is troubling as it encourages others to copy the potential abuse and perpetuate the cycle and I urge you to be transparent in your decisions and answers.”

When reached for comment, the EPOTY told PetaPixel the following, which it says will also be published on its website tomorrow:

There have been important questions raised regarding staging of images selected for publication by the competition.

While staging is not specifically barred in our 2021 competition rules and guidelines, the discussion on how our competition protects the rights and dignity of vulnerable populations is an important one that we take very seriously.

We also believe that our competition has a responsibility to promote robust and transparent informed ethical consent practices in photography.

We are having discussions internally and with industry experts regarding the specified guidelines and queries raised, and will give these discussions the time they require and deserve. Next, we will act to ensure that our policy on ethics in photography is clear, effective and that we have the processes and safeguards in place to support it.

In the interim, we can provide more transparency into what is taking place now:

  • We have reviewed all of this year’s selected images and are satisfied that they comply with the competition rules and guidelines for 2021.
  • When launching next year’s competition, we will publish our policy on ethics in photography with specific guidance for photographers on consent and ethical representation of vulnerable populations.
  • As part of our selection process, we will continue to closely review any shortlisted or exhibition images that depict vulnerable children before selection or publication.

Thank you again for raising these important issues. We believe that providing leadership and education on respect for the rights and dignity of all people represented in imagery is an essential part of our responsibility as a photography platform.

We appreciate the comments and perspective that we have received and the important dialogue this has encouraged. We will use this, and other review processes, to further develop our guidelines as appropriate.

Some Twitter users also approached Renuncio and asked for transparency on how the image was constructed, but he has since made his Instagram account private.

PetaPixel has reached out to Renuncio for comment as well but has not heard back at the time of this publication.