March, 25


National Geographic, how I won and lost the contest in less than one second

Harry Fisch

National Geographic Contest




Come to the next trip with Nomad Photo Expedition  If you want to share with me the pleasure of travelling, discovering hidden locations,  the contact with people of different cultures and, most of all, the challenge of improving your photographic skills.


It did not take long to take the winning photograph of the National Geographic Photo 2012: one seventh of a second (1/7 s in photographic terms), almost the same time it took me to lose the prize.


This is the story of how you can climb to the highest photographic peak and fall in only 72 hours. And why you should carefully read the rules of a contest…


Just landing from my last travel photography trip with Nomad Photo Expedition and  reading the posts , I saw one  from  National Geographic. I did not hurry to open it, it could probably be an add, or the acknowledgement of the photographs I had sent at the last minute to the contest. I have to confess that, to some extend, I got excited before opening it thinking that -why not?- I possibly could  have been selected on the top ten…
I opened  the mail and read:



“Congratulations! …… Your photo was Chosen as the winner of the Places      category for the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest ….”



I almost fainted: I was the winner of the contest !


My first thought is that I had misread the text. Secondly, that it was a friend’s joke. I reread it several times. It is authentic: the Senior Editor in person  signs the email .



I won the “Places” category, one of the most complicated categories for National Geographic, and that in the most demanding and renowned travel photography magazine in the world ! It’s hard to aim higher in this photographic specialty. This year there were over 22,000 entries from 150 countries.



Only  a couple of steps left: filling  a document claiming the ownership of the rights to the image and licensing  the rights for National Geographic. That, in addition to sending the original digital photography. By the way, I did not have the “negative” Raw because, unusually, by a mistake settling the camera (a Fuji X-pro1), that day only Jpg was set.



Everything was sent the next day.
And I prepared to enjoy the win …


Now, I thought, time to tell my closest friends the good news , the  same friends that have been suffering my  photographic stories year after year . Later the next circle of acquaintances. Once the price published, I should prepare a Press Release. You can not run through  such an event in silence! Something that only happens once in life …! They were days of rejoicing, of shared joy. All the hours spent, travelling, flying, uncomfortable destinations. Everything  acquired more sense after  deserving global recognition on  the extraordinary magazine.
It was then when I received a new mail from the magazine. I was informed by the editor that the photograph was  disqualified: I had removed a plastic bag on the far right, along the edge of the frame.


The  original photograph



But that did not matter! – I thought.  Should I  have minimally displaced the right side of the frame, croping,  the damn bag would had never existed in the picture! It’s like winning  the Tennis Grand Slam and losing by stopping to relieve myself on the edge of the tennis court!


In desperation , I write to Tino Soriano, master of  travel photographers, the only official National Geographic photographer in Spain, a reference in travel photography. I counted  in his experience in this type of competition – having himself won the World Press Photo Award-  as well as his familiarity with National Geographic matters, to help me focus the problem.


He does not give me great hope. Although he  shares the view that the removed bag does not alter the substance of the  picture, he believes that it will be impossible to meet, again, the jury, the rules do prevent adding or removing anything and  Americans are very strict with rules.  National Geographic even more. It is likely –he says – that such a picture – not being competing in a contest – as it is, would  have been published by  National Geographic itself.



I lunged to the computer and sent a mail to Monica Corcoran, editor of the magazine, arguing that a crop, perfectly allowed by the rules, would have done away with the object without further alterations, the bag would have melted with a slight burning-darkening, that  it was unnecessary to remove anything digitally (the rule that bans deleting or adding  tries to  safeguard the spirit or  nature of  the photograph. Here the nature nor spirit of the original photo was not altered) and, most of all, that the minimal, slight modification did not alter the picture.


After what seemed –to me- a long wait (only 24 hours I most admit) for the answer,  Monica Corcoran, Editor of National Geographic answered: 
“.. it is unfortunate you did not crop the bag or just leave it  in, as it really had no impact either way….”.


“… no impact either way …”!


I’ve won the Grand Slam, but was disqualified for removing something , that  in fact, would have  not changed  the final  result. And, worst of all, should I have been the jury, I would have acted in the same, exact way !
Which brings us to another issue : the “authenticity” of photography and how much  can it be altered: darkened, enlightened, sharpened, reframed, etc.. . Furthermore, the extent to which rules should apply without prejudice to the spirit of what they  are trying to protect.


But it was a contest … And the rules are the rules…


I have the consolation of knowing that, with or without the bag, this  picture is mine. And, worst of all,  a very expensive lesson learned:  in an event of this importance there is no room for interpretation. The competition is the competition and the rules are strictly enforced.


But I now have a unique opportunity in history: the challenge  of winning, for the first time in history, twice  the National Geographic Photo contest!  I promise to read, carefully the rules next time…