Several photographs related to the Hong Kong protests were taken down from the 2020 Sony World Photography Awards’ website, reports Hong Kong Free Press. Entries by photographers David Butow, Ko Chung Ming, and Adam Ferguson — among the finalists and shortlisted nominees — were flagged by the World Photography Organization (WPO), the contest’s organizer, as potentially “contradict[ing] the competition’s terms and conditions,” according to WPO.
Since pro-democracy protests prompted by the Hong Kong government’s now-scrapped extradition bill erupted across the city in spring 2019, China has tightened its grip on the media, placing 48 journalists in prison in 2019 and suppressing coverage of violent confrontations between protesters and the Hong Kong Police Force.
Also removed and being reviewed are Adam Ferguson’s portraits of protesters for @Time and David Butow’s Battleground HongKong. Is World Photography Organisation under pressure from China to censor images featuring #HongKongProtests?
— Rachel Cheung (@rachel_cheung1) February 18, 2020
Now, some speculate WPO yielded to pressure from China to take down the photographs, especially because other entries featuring arguably graphic or politically sensitive content have not faced a similar fate in past competitions.
“They are not shying away from work that’s quite political and that shows conflict, which is what the Hong Kong work shows,” David Butow, an American photojournalist whose photo essay Battleground Hong Kong was shortlisted in the Documentary category, told Quartz.
Butow tweeted last week that he withdrew his entry after WPO said it would not display the series in its entirety because of “political sensitivity issues.”
“I conclude the scope and intent of my essay is no longer compatible with the contest,” said Butow in his tweet. “My understanding is that one other winning entry from #HongKong has been similarly-handled and ours are the only two this year — across all categories — that were subjected to revision.”
Butow contrasted the action taken by WPO against his images with its decision to display Mustafa Hassona’s third-place winning entry, which included photographs of violence at the Gaza Strip border, in its 2019 edition.
Similarly, six out of the 10 photographs in 2020 finalist Ko Chung-ming’s Wounds of Hong Kong, portraits of those injured during the Hong Kong protests, are no longer featured on the competition’s website. Unlike the four images remaining, the withdrawn photographs portray pepper spray scars, tear gas burns, and other wounds caused by clashes with Hong Kong police.
Speaking to Hong Kong Free Press, Ko said he initially reached out to WPO to alert them that the link to his gallery was broken, only to learn that his photographs had been taken down temporarily. When they went back up, more than half of the series was missing.
WPO’s response to Ko was shared on his Facebook page: “A concern was raised about the sensitive nature of some of the images in the series which we must take into consideration. We have temporarily taken down the images as part of a standard process which we have put in place for these type of cases until we are able to review everything in further detail.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong Protesters by Australian photographer Adam Ferguson was temporarily put under restricted access on WPO’s website (all the images are now back online). Ferguson told Quartz that he had not been notified by the organization of the restriction, calling the measure “crazy but not surprising.”
His series, shortlisted for the Portrait category, documents the members of Hong Kong’s youth protest movement, many of whom appear in masks to conceal their identity.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, WPO asserted that its decision to remove certain images from the website would not affect the photographers’ nomination or standing within the competition. “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,” said WPO in an email.
“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,” concluded WPO.