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April 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Photo Contest Winners and Losers

and a scandal erupts

from the April, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The winning super-macro shot

Underwater photography used to be more difficult. A previous doyen of underwater photography, BBC Blue Planet filmmaker Peter Scoones (recently departed), once said that if you could reliably take a picture on film in focus, properly exposed, and well lit, you had a good chance of winning any underwater photography competition. Former UNEXSO (Bahamas) dive guide Kurt Amsler knew how to do that, and he dominated every contest -- until he decided to stop entering and let some newcomers have a go.

The Internet is now awash with wonderful underwater photographs.

Of course, digital photography has changed all that. Now, any diver can buy a digital camera, wide-angle or macro lens, and strobes and reliably get results. If RAW files are shot in camera, nearly every adjustment, other than focus, can be made later on your laptop, using the right software. In fact, it has become so easy, the Internet is now awash with wonderful underwater photographs. Because many are of the same subject, they often look very similar.

However, underwater photography competitions continue unabated. Often they are merely data gathering exercises or even contests designed to unashamedly gather library pictures for rightsfree use. Businesses donate prizes because they see the publicity generated as a positive marketing benefit; the prizes tend to be equipment or dive vacations or liveaboard trips (but rarely with the cost of flights included). Whatever the prize, there can only ever be a single winner. But competitions aren't without controversy. In another big competition this year some category winners were accused of cheating.

When David Pilosof, the former publisher of Yam, the Israeli diving magazine, organized the World ShootOut, he was determined to get more valuable prizes than trips and equipment that people didn't really need. His goal was to attract the best underwater photographers and the best pictures from around the world.

He divided the competition into eight categories, with each winner being awarded a prize worth thousands of dollars. For example, the top prize for 2015 was worth $25,000 and it attracted 448 amateur and professional underwater photographers from 37 different countries.

Americans did well. The American team in the Underwater Global Championship (a separate team category within the competition) comprising Mike Bartick, Brook Peterson and Bruce Shafer, won third place. Tanya Houppermans won a $6000 trip for two to the Zulu Kingdom resort in South Africa as outright winner of the shark category. Evan Sherman Evan won a $2000 check courtesy of the Israeli Diving Authority as winner in the video clip category.

With results announced this January, competition was fierce; it was no longer sufficient to produce a pleasing portrait of a marine animal. To get anywhere near winning an award, photographers needed to capture examples of unusual behavior. The problem arose when it was alleged a winning underwater photographer, Marco Chang of Taiwan, might have resorted to cheating.

We have all seen people moving invertebrates around for the benefit of the camera. We may not approve, but it happens more often than we might like -- but this was strictly against the published rules of the World ShootOut.

It was alleged a winning underwater photographer might have resorted to cheating.

The wining picture in the macro and supermacro category was an extreme close-up of a nudibranch with a pair of imperial shrimp on its head. Placing only second with his own picture in that category, British photographer Dr. Alex Tattersall alleged that these shrimp in the winning shot appeared to him to have been manipulated into position, breaching competition rules. (www.worldshootout.org/?CategoryID=331)

He protested. It seems, after he got no satisfaction from the organizers and like a dog with a bone, he took to posting his complaints numerous times on Facebook and mobilizing support from a great number of other underwater photographers.

These, in turn, expressed dissatisfaction at the way in which the competition had been run. Some complained about the team competition category, while others alleged that some winning pictures had been taken outside the time frame specified in the rules.

Dr. Tattersall wrote, "Regarding the issue of subject herding in the macro category, I was also told by the organizer that 'crab' and 'nudibranch' experts at a prestigious university had been consulted who had attested to the winning image displaying natural behavior. The university does not appear to have a department for such specialism, certainly not a research center, and the organizer has been unwilling to provide me with any information as to who these experts are or any proof of their statement. The jury panel has also remained largely anonymous. I have offered strong and compelling evidence to engage in a debate, and this has effectively been completely ignored."

In protest, he returned his prize.

Meanwhile, the Israeli organizers of the competition defended their position. David Pilosof implied that Dr. Tattersall was a poor loser and replied, "World ShootOut has contributed so much to underwater photographers around the world (since its inception). In fact, up to now, I've personally arranged over $220,000 to be awarded to underwater photographers in cash, not to mention extremely valuable diving holidays and high-end gear."

There was colateral effect. At the same time, and in response to other questions raised by those following Dr. Tattersall's Facebook campaign, Sharon Rainis Shoval, on behalf of the World ShootOut, posted, "We'd like to thank all the photographers who raised the fact that the manta image submitted by the 2nd place winning Italian team was captured in 2014 and, therefore, doesn't comply with the competition rules, thus disqualifying the whole portfolio of the team and banning it from the competition."

Despite this, the organizers continue to be intransigent about their choice of winner in the macro and super-macro category.

One of the judges, Adam Hanlon, editor of Wetpixel, was unrepentant when he told Dr. Tattersall, "It is true that no one can produce definitive proof that the subjects were not manipulated. However, equally, and crucially in this instance, you cannot produce definitive proof that they were."

Being a judge at such competitions can be onerous, and we all know that some competition judges can be partisan, especially when it involves something as indefinable as art. But the judges' decision is final. However, the prizes were substantial, and with the stakes so high, people were no longer prepared to shrug their shoulders and put it down to experience.

Cheating winner or poor loser? We'll never know. There is no way to determine if the shrimp in the winning picture were manipulated. The anger in the underwater photography community is only based on suspicion. However, since then another photographer, Jack Berthomier, has posted a similar picture of a nudibranch with two shrimps on its head on 'forum-photosub.fr' so maybe an apology is in order. Either way, don't expect Nauticam to sponsor this competition anytime in the future. Dr. Tattersall is the British and French distributor for Nauticam underwater photography products.

There were no such problems with the Underwater Photographer of the Year, another recent competition with judges based in the UK. Italian photographer David Lopresi won outright for his stunning seahorse picture entitled 'Gold.' Showcasing some of the most breath-taking images captured underwater, the annual competition, with judges Alex Mustard, Peter Rowlands, and Martin Edge, received entries from thousands of talented photographers. You can view the winners here: www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2016/ feb/17/underwater-photographer-of-the-year- 2016-winners-in-pictures

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