Judging the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards

One of the winning images from photographer of the year, Yaman Ibrahim.

Sometimes, choice can make life difficult. A couple of weeks ago, five judges and I sat down (virtually, since everybody was in different parts of the world) to decide on the category and overall winners for the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards. I had the privilege of working with Raghu Rai from Magnum; Mike Yamashita from National Geographic; Jim Liaw and Manny Librodo. Submissions closed on 31 October after three months, with a grand total of nearly 70,000 entries from 9 ASEAN countries. Shortlisting these down to approximately 1,500 final contenders was a panel of secondary judges, with myself overseeing.

Winning images and detailed results may be viewed here at the Maybank Photo Awards website.

I’ve got some general observations I’d like to share before talking about the individual categories. It seems unfortunate that a number of really outstanding images had to be disqualified because the submitters didn’t pay attention to either the category they were entering, or the overall theme of the competition: an abstract image with no local cues and a lot of generic subjects does not say Asia, let alone inspiring it. Similarly, you’d expect people who spend their professional careers – and no doubt a good portion of their lives – photographing would produce the strongest images; they didn’t. The studio pros went all out with the retouching and DI, but lagged behind on the creative portion and the translation of idea to image. The press category…let’s just say the entries needed help.

Though there were a few outstanding press entries, the majority either exhibited a lack of care, a lack of vision, or an implicit dependence on an editor to weed out the mediocre shots and identify the few remaining good ones. The images that were pictorially strong and moving – those that told a story, had integrity, and more than that, grit – were unfortunately also very depressing and centred around themes of war, destruction and natural disaster. Hope, curiously was mostly missing. (There were also an inexplicable number of entries containing sulfur miners in Indonesia; I suppose there was a sponsored junket at some point.) In a repeat of last year, the judges honestly felt that this was the most mediocre category of all – this is consistently surprising, since these were perhaps the only group of people with a consistent pipeline of new subject matter to work with – and subject matter that’s often both newsworthy, socially significant and inspiring.

Portraiture, on the other hand, was perhaps the best of the other categories: it’s a very difficult category to interpret in the context of the competition theme without appearing too cliched. Sometimes – as I learned with an earlier photo set I printed – it’s important not to underestimate the importance of local context; making excessive assumptions of the knowledge of the viewer tends to result in weaker images. However, I’m pleased to say that wedding and Twilight-themed studio work aside, the portrait category had some of the more creative interpretations; we saw photographs that were inspiring in themselves, and photographs of people that clearly inspired the photographer beyond the simple motive of making the image.

Street photography has burgeoned in recent years, I suspect partially due to accessibility as much as the increasing popularity of the genre in popular media and online. It’s also something that’s very open-ended and easy to get into for an amateur photographer. This also meant that we had a huge variety of images, from semirandom snapshots to those verging on the documentary. The winner we selected was something perhaps a bit cliched but also a bit different from the conventional vein of street photography; both Raghu and I felt that there was a metaphor here: Asia on the move? As a region undergoing constant change, driven by its people? With slightly vague definition? We can of course only hope that this was the intention of the photographer to begin with.

Asia has a wide variety of flora and fauna, which is perhaps why we were surprised that there weren’t more animal entries beyond the now-cliched running bulls of Bromo; it seems that it’s also a very Asian thing to submit similar images to winners of previous competitions in the hope that they’d win again. Newsflash: the image originally won because it stood out from the rest. I think this category was somewhat confusing to entrants as we can easily go from animal/ plant (small-scale) to adding mid-scale landscape context, to adding large-scale location context – and suddenly we’ve got a landscape. The category was deliberately left open to the interpretation of the photographer so as not to limit creativity. I deferred to Mike Yamashita’s expertise on this one, not being a nature photographer myself. Personally, I thought some of the landscapes were excellent, too – if perhaps not quite as challenging to access as our eventual winner.

The most ‘obvious’ category matching the competition theme would unquestionably be culture and heritage. Entries ran the whole gamut of cultural cliches from blink-and-you’ll miss it subtle to in-your-face posed. We felt the most important thing was that the image feel authentic – even if it was staged. That authenticity is difficult to define, but is perhaps best characterised as ‘believability’ – it’s the difference between the Universal Studios theme park move set of New York and the real New York, if you know what I mean. Since there were simply so many of these images, having a unique composition and perspective became even more important to distinguish the winner from the competition.

Personally, one of the biggest things I took away from the competition is that subjectivity goes far beyond the small gamut of what we’d expect; certainly all of the judges had their own preconceptions about the kinds of images that we should be seeing under the theme of ‘inspiring Asia’. Even if one consciously goes in with an open mind, then you’d still be surprised by the possible latitude of interpretation in the submitted images; imposing our own expectations would not only be unfair, but I suspect that our own personal/ experimental work might well not survive the firing squad before a complete layman jury. It is therefore important to when we evaluate images to ask oneself whether the essence of the image might be interpreted as Asian both to somebody who lives there, as well as the general viewing public – whom might not, but might have ideas as to what ‘Asian’ means. In this case, I think it’s both the audience who both interprets and dictates the meaning of the theme – Asia is represented by its people, and if they believe that location wedding portraits, movie-inspired portraits, cats, hipstagram filters, mating insects, bikini girls, running bulls and (just some of the commonly repetitive themes we saw this year) are the flavour of the season – who are we to disagree?

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about the biggest category yet: Photographer of The Year. There were surprisingly few participants who were shortlisted in multiple categories; we opened it up to entrants with images that made the cut in two or more categories, with weighting given to the overall breadth and diversity of the portfolio, as well as how well that portfolio fit the theme. We’d like to have seen even more diversity from individuals overall; however there was one photographer who stood out from the competition. He was able to to compose and visualize well and execute cleanly, and moreover has the potential to go much further by injecting a little more individual flavour or unique style to his images.

Perhaps it would be best to finish with a few pointers for future entrants.
1. Make sure you enter your images into the correct category, and that they are at least remotely related to the overall theme of the competition.
2. Don’t shoot what you think the judges might like; there are lots of us and we will always have dissenting opinions – there were many intense but productive discussions amongst ourselves in the course of trying to find a winner. Instead, think carefully about the theme and shoot your interpretation of it – ensure that the execution is sufficiently robust to convey your idea, though.
3. Don’t leave it until the very last moment to enter. It must be an Asian thing – we had such high volumes of submissions in the final hours that things got slow, simply because of technical limitations.
4. If you don’t enter, you can’t win. Fill your quota of images.

Congratulations to the winners, and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2014 brings. MT

The full gallery of winners and finalists may be viewed here on the official Maybank Photo Awards website.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I hope for next year, the Press category is to be opened to public, not only press photographers. I believe by opening it to public would make the press photographers out of their comfort zone and get more stunning pictures.

  2. Michael Matthews says:

    News photographs are a reflection on the mind of the editor. He or she is in an office miles, maybe thousands of miles, away. The editor looks for dramatic contrast to his own comfortable setting. The reader or viewer is assumed to share that preference. The photographer, who may be dodging machine gun fire, trying to regain his hearing following a bomb blast, or simply bored numb by the fact that nothing is happening, has to supply the editor with what is wanted or face unemployment. Once in a while a person who can find optimism — or at least hope — in the most appalling surroundings comes along (see Steve McCurry). But in most cases there is a very limited budget for the heartwarming “soft” stuff. It’s more an indictment of editorial judgement than the work of the guy in the field.

    • For what gets published, I agree. For a competition in which the photographer chooses images of their own free will, and which has a theme of ‘inspiring Asia’, I disagree…I think they just didn’t bother to read the brief.

      • It’s also probably due to influence as well – if we see ‘award winning photos’ or published photos that are all doom and gloom then we naturally assume that this is the type of photography that judges want to see….

        • …Which still takes us back to lack of imagination.

          • Fair point. Somehow that needs to be conveyed even clearer in next yrs brief….

            • I thought it was pretty obvious this year. Lack of comprehension is a problem that’s the responsibility of the government and education systems, not a photographic contest…on the plus side, I suppose it makes it easier for the potential winners to stand out.

      • Michael Matthews says:

        Guilty, on my part. I looked only at the categories and the photos shown. I assumed the category “press photography” meant news events and that it implied conventional subject matter and style. The entire idea of being inspiring blew right by.

  3. l Wish I could have entered in this contest, but I’ve only spent a single week in asia in a time when I didn’t know a f-stop from a bus stop… I wouldn’t have won, mind you, but it would have been fun to try 😉

    About the reporter photos, it’s something I’ve noticed about the local (Canadian) newspaper photographers too. Their work rarely goes above “passable” frankly. I suspect it’s because they’re under pressure to work fast rather than well. Their job is to get a shot, fast, and not “the” shot, no matter how long it takes.

  4. Reblogged this on morinanderim.

  5. Street pictures were somewhat disappointing to me.

    • I can only repeat what I said before: I wasn’t the category judge, and the winners weren’t my choice. Perhaps you should take it up with Raghu Rai of Magnum instead 🙂

      • well to me the secondary judges played a huge role in the final judges’ decision. quite disappointing in what kind of images got into the gallery and what was discarded especially in the street category.

        • Actually, since there is no way you could have seen what didn’t get shortlisted, your comment makes no sense. Having QC’d the shortlisting and seen a good quantity of the total entry pool, I can also say it’s untrue: the standard was frankly pretty low.

          The images that made it into both the shortlist and the finals were the best that were submitted. Were they good on an absolute scale? Not necessarily, but we cannot award something that wasn’t submitted.

          Perhaps if you feel so strongly about the choices, you should submit better images for next year 🙂

          • yes true i have no idea what didn’t get shortlisted, but no i did not submit photos to this competition. i still stand by my humble opinion that many weren’t street photos 😉 (and no my understanding of what is street or not aren’t just restricted to photos taken on the street hehe)

            • I still think you’re missing the point: we cannot shortlist something that wasn’t submitted. We had to pick a winner from the pool of submissions, and that’s all we had to choose from. People who are going to be critics only have valid opinions if they at least put your money where their mouth is and show they can do better.

              • no i do get your of having to pick a winner. the rest i probably have not articulated well enough. thanks anyway. and totally agree with your last sentence 😉

              • sorry yea, i very rarely comment on blog posts but felt compelled to because i just think the secondary judges played a part as well as the final judge. that is all.

  6. So glad for Yaman…he was the first photographer I favourited and followed when I started becoming interested in photography 2 yrs ago, and it has been great to see his repertoire expanding. My first fave was http://www.flickr.com/photos/yamanibrahim/5220714394/in/faves-icypics/

    I have invited him to the group a few times but no response,,,though I wasn’t sure whether Yaman represented “the competition” in so far as being a talented KL based photog!

    Hengki is also someone I have followed for a while…very distinctive presentation style, even with fairly diverse subject matter. One of my favourites of his is included in the shortlist “Portrait of Amrus Natalsya” and represents a very different feel to his work, and one I would love to see more of…excellent documentary portrait.

    I certainly whole-heartedly agree with their placements!

    I wasn’t aware of Achmad Munasit…but very much like what I have seen…fabulous light and moments captured

    I was getting a “over-processed Steve McCurry” vibe from some of the others :S

    It looks like the standards were higher this year Ming?

    • Standards were definitely higher, except for press, who seem to have regressed even relative to the low standards last year. Collectively, that group is a disgrace to anybody who calls themselves a photographer. They are no better than the paparazzi of misery and suffering.

      I’d like to have seen a bit more imagination all around, though. Overall interpretation of the theme was either very cliched or not particularly creative.

  7. Solid photos in there, but disagree on your choice of winner for the street selection. It’s a long draw of the bow for the metaphor of Asia on the move being “the” representative image for this region. This image could be representative of any major city around the globe. With 70,000 entries, it’s inevitable subjective selection is going to be an issue in some categories more so than others.

  8. Many great photos by Asian photographers. It has been a pleasure to review.

    It should not be surprising that photos of human misery appear prominently. The world is full of human misery; most of us manage to ignore it and go on happily (or so it seems) on our way.

    Whether the photography is of man-made destruction or natural disasters that most people simply cannot cope with, it is a necessary — if depressing — confrontation with reality. It shows us that “Homo Sapiens Sapiens” is still a very primitive and proto-rational species. People of the future will undoubtedly wonder about us as they struggle to explain both our actions and inaction.

    Nevertheless, we HSS do fortunately have the potential to create beauty and art even within the destruction that we create and/or ignore. Perhaps there is hope for the human species.

    Thank you for the opportunity to be enriched by these photographs.

    • There’s potential to see beauty and hope in destruction – but what is presented is almost always just despair and extremes. Why? Since a photograph is a reflection on the mind of the creator – assuming they have sufficient skill to translate that vision (apparently, I’m soulless, methodological and logical) – I can only assume that there’s something very wrong in the minds of our press photographers.

      • The answer to the question “Why?” is that we expect documentary photographers to give us a taste of the world’s ugliness to which we normally do not have access (acknowledging the desire for editorial drama mentioned by another reader.)

        It would be our collective loss if documentary photographers decided to ignore the seedier aspects of human existence in order to not upset our daily comfort (relative as it is.)

        We depend on these photographers to force us to see the other sides of the human experience. Although we may feel frustrated when the world’s ugliest realities are portrayed before our eyes, it would be our intellectual and ethical loss if we managed to create a working environment in which these images cannot gain access into our consciousness.

        Frustration, in this case at least, would be better than denial.

        • True, but they have an equal responsibility to give us access to hope which those that only see the ugly might not otherwise get to experience.

          And in the context of the competition, with a very clear theme, denial or frustration is irrelevant: they just didn’t read. Nobody said they had to enter depressing images!

  9. Lots of work for the judges. Really like the Taj Mahal photo.

  10. Ming, your take away on what the influence of subjectivity especially when judging a competition is very interesting in the context of what we were discussing a few days ago on ‘what makes art’ and really hits home on how difficult it really is in trying to ‘represent’ something in an image. The telling a story and idea was in my opinion the hardest part of your workshop and in a competition the various judges will no doubt see things differently. There must have been a few heated debates along the way 😉

    I can see how the photographer of the year was chosen – the consistency of style is there as well as some very good ideas. Congratulations to all the winners, some really fantastic entries – the nature category provided some more optimistic/fun images.

    it is a bit sad/unfortunate to see how a lot of competitions are dominated by more harder/depressing themes. it’s always one thing that annoys me about the World Press Photography shots, all a bit dull and glum. We need more optimism in todays world!!!!

    • It’s a self-reinforcing problem: the media’s decision makers want misery and destruction because that sells. People rebel and that’s why we have hipstagram cats and rich kids. Popular media must be popular – and photography has become so democratized now that there’s no denying that institutions no longer have the same level of influence they once did. As judges, why should we? It’s all subjective anyway.

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