Picture That Won ‘World’s Largest Photo Competition’ Was Staged

Behind the scenes of the award-winning photo.
The picture that won the CEWE Photo Awards 2023, left, was purportedly taken in a traditional Indonesian cafe but was actually shot in a studio alongside multiple other photographers at a conceptual photo event, right.

A photographer who won the “world’s largest photo competition” and took home the grand prize worth over $25,000 won it with a staged picture, PetaPixel has exclusively learned.

Indonesian photographer Dikye Ariani was crowned overall winner of the CEWE Photo Awards 2023 at a glitzy ceremony in Hamburg, Germany on September 21. The theme of the competition was “Our world is beautiful” and Ariani’s winning photo purported to show the owner of a traditional Indonesian cafe, known as a Warung Kopi, enthusiastically playing cards

“The proprietress, the sole woman in the scene, welcomes the men from the village after a hard day’s work in the rice fields,” CEWE writes of the photo in a press release.

However, PetaPixel has learned the presentation of the image as a documentary photo is demonstrably false.

The photos were in fact taken at a conceptual photo shoot held at a studio to mark the launch of a camera on November 20, 2022, in Bogor, Indonesia.

Behind-the-scenes photo
Behind-the-scenes at the event showing multiple photographers shooting the same picture as well as lighting.

The owner of the studio, Budi (@boedi.tjapkodok), tells PetaPixel that he was “surprised” that the concept photo won the CEWE competition.

“The Waroeng Kopi concept is a concept that I created during a promotional event for the launch of a camera which was held at my place in collaboration with the camera distributors,” explains Budi.

“I act as a mentor and conceptor who organizes the venue setup, lighting, and costumes as well as preparing the talent.

“One of my workshop participants was Dikye who apparently won the CEWE photo contest.”

A different photo of the woman playing cards
The woman is known as Mak Donna and regularly appears at Budi’s studio for different conceptual photo shoots. | @boedi.tjapkodok

Budi adds that the woman in the photo is the mother of an employee who works at his studio and is affectionately known as “Mak Donna.” She is not a cafe owner.

“She is an ordinary person who lives near my workshop. She is not a model, but because her face and behavior are unique she is often the subject of photographers who come to my place,” he adds.

Similar Photos

Ariani was not the only photographer present at the workshop. Since she won the award, multiple photographers have shared their work online from the same event showing very similar photos.

Photo taken by a photographer
A photographer at the same event took this near-identical photo.

Another photographer who apparently attended the same event, also posted photos of the same scene including a contact sheet filled with “straight out of camera” photos.

Furthermore, on Budi’s Instagram page there are multiple photos from the same scene. But damningly, there are photos and videos of the same model in completely different scenes which seem to confirm that the woman in the photo is not the “proprietress of a traditional Indonesian cafe.”

A different conceptual photo shoot with the same woman at the same studio
The same woman from Ariani’s award-winning photo is seen here in a totally different conceptual photo shoot. | @boedi.tjapkodok
A different conceptual photo shoot with the same woman at the same studio
Here, she plays chess with a group of actors. | @boedi.tjapkodok
A different conceptual photo shoot with the same woman at the same studio
A World Cup-themed photo shoot also features the woman, right. | @boedi.tjapkodok

Were the Rules of the Contest Broken?

On the CEWE Photo Awards website, it says that submitted photos must “represent the motif and the essential image content in an unaltered and realistic manner.”

It’s unclear whether Ariani broke any rules but what is certain is that the photo has been presented in a false way.

AI Accusations

There were accusations that the image was generated by artificial intelligence (AI) — a charge that photographers are increasingly facing in this climate.

However, this is partly because a “Warung,” which is a small family-owned business, is increasingly rare in Indonesia.

One Indonesian photographer who wishes to remain anonymous tells PetaPixel that while scenes such as the one depicted in Ariani’s winning photo exist; an old woman gambling makes it extremely rare as usually it is just a group of men in the small shops. Warungs will also typically have poor lighting.

Global Coverage

The CEWE Photo Awards are a big deal. PetaPixel covered the winners, so too did The Guardian, DPReview, and National Geographic.

Award ceremony
Dikye Ariani receiving her award at the ceremony held in Hamburg, Germany in September. | CEWE

The awards themselves lauded the winning shot as a “powerful photograph right from life.” CEWE board member Thomas Mehls said the photo offers “an authentic glimpse into everyday life in Indonesia with her magnificent shot.”

The photo awards aim to do some good by donating 10 cents to charity for every photo submitted. This year, they donated $54,000 (50,961 Euros) to SOS Children’s Villages.

CEWE claims to be the largest photo competition in the world and say that over half a million photos were entered into the competition this year.

The story is similar to one a few years ago when Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee won the prestigious Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) in 2019. He was awarded the grand prize of $120,000 but it proved to be controversial after behind-the-scene photos later revealed the shot to be staged.

CEWE Photo Awards and Dikye Ariani were both contacted multiple times for comment but neither party responded ahead of publication.

Update 10/26: A previous version of this article named the exact camera model the conceptual photo shoot was held for. It has been removed at the behest of the studio owner.