The World Photography Organization has revealed the winners of this year’s Sony World Photography Awards, one of the most prestigious competitions in the industry. Each image—from the overall winner, to the category winners, to the Open, Student, and Youth winners—demonstrate the power of photography to not only capture a meaningful moment, but to send a powerful message.
The overall winner and title of Photographer of the Year goes to Pablo Albarenga of Uruguay for his striking portrait series titled “Seeds of Resistance.” For this series, Albarenga created diptychs by photographing environmental activists alongside the land they are risking their lives to defend, both shot from above.
According to the project’s description, the series “explores the bond between the defenders and their land—a sacred area in which hundreds of generations of their ancestors rest.” The top-down view is meant to represent how these activists are willing to literally “lay down” their lives for their territory.
Photographer of the Year
Photographer: Pablo Albarenga
Title: Seeds of Resistance 3
Image Description: José is one of the leaders of the Achuar indigenous people in the Sharamentsa community. He defends his rainforest by generating projects in collaboration with external organizations. One of them aims to create an indigenous group to monitor their territory from the ground and also by using aerial technology such as drones.
Left: José lying down in his yard over a banana leaf, dressed in traditional Achuar clothing.
Right: The Achuar rainforest at the back of José’s house. Sharamentsa, Pastaza, Ecuador.
Scroll down to see all of this year’s Professional Category winners, as well as the winners of the prestigious Open Photographer of the Year, Student Photographer of the Year, and Youth Photographer of the Year awards.
Open Photographer of the Year
Photographer: Tom Oldham
Title: Black Francis
Image Description: Photographers for MOJO Magazine enjoy a rare degree of freedom and trust with what is usually an open brief. This allows us to capture our own experience with very high profile musicians. However, when photographing famous singers, we are often painfully aware of how many times the sitter has, well, sat. I like to acknowledge this and asked Charles (aka Black Francis) to show me the level of frustration photoshoots can generate. He offered up this perfect gesture of exasperation, and the image ran as the lead portrait for the feature.
Student Photographer of the Year
Photographer: Ioanna Sakellaraki
Series Description: In an era of climate change and challenges around sustainability, islands are particularly vulnerable. Insular by their very nature, these land masses usually depend on fossil fuels and imports for energy (despite the high transportation costs). Until a few years ago, the idea of an island being fully reliant on clean energy was almost unthinkable, and yet it is about to become a reality on Tilos in Greece.
This tiny island in the Dodecanese archipelago is the first in the Mediterranean to run almost entirely on renewable energy. Over the years it has received energy from a diesel power plant on the neighboring island of Kos, via an undersea cable, but during the tourist season this has proven unreliable, leading to frequent power cuts. Since 2015, however, the supply on Tilos has been reinforced with a hybrid system exclusively powered by renewable sources including solar and wind power.
These images were taken in the island’s capital, Megálo Chorió, which is home to just 70 people during the winter. At night the passageways, rooftops and yards are illuminated by moonlight, presenting plenty of opportunities for photography. The islanders use various solar panels and energy devices including some handmade versions. The aim is to keep these running for as long as possible to help sustain households throughout the winter.
My series looks at how these strangely-shaped devices and wires become an organic part of the scenery at night. As darkness falls, a harmonic symbiosis exists between this technology and the dry and mountainous landscape of Tilos. Aeiforia is a Greek word for defining progress based on the use of natural ecosystems and energy sources to ensure future resources.
Youth Photographer of the Year
Photographer: Hsien-Pang Hsieh
Image Description: This image was taken shortly after I came to Germany to study. It was the first time I had travelled abroad alone, and I felt under enormous pressure. There were so many things to learn at school, and I was also trying to fit in with everyone else.
Although this man looks as though he’s in a rush to get to work, he’s actually standing still – and it’s this dichotomy that appealed to me. These days, with life moving at such a frantic pace, it’s important for people to slow down. When I’m facing challenges I look at this picture and it reminds me to take a moment and just breathe.
1st Place – Architecture
Photographer: Sandra Herber
Title: Ice Fishing Hut XV
Series Description: Winters in Manitoba, Canada, are long and often bitterly cold. When the temperature drops, and thick ice forms, lakes and rivers in the province play host to some amazing folk architecture in the form of ice fishing huts. These huts, shacks or permies (as they are called in Manitoba) must be transportable, protect their occupants from the elements and allow access to the ice below for fishing. Once these requirements have been met, the owners are free to express their personalities in the shape, structure and decoration of their huts – they are large or small, decorated or plain, luxurious or utilitarian and everything in between.
I captured these images on Lake Winnipeg in December 2019. My hope for this series, which is a continuation of work I started in 2018, is to showcase the quirky charm of these huts by presenting a select few in a typology. The typology – showing the huts framed in the same, minimalist style and in the same lighting – allows the viewer to notice similarities in function and uniqueness in form, as well as to display these utilitarian structures as beautiful works of art.
1st Place – Discovery
Photographer: Maria Kokunova
Series Description: It has been four years since I voluntarily isolated myself in a cosy cave of maternity, living in a country house in Leningrad Oblast. I deliberately restrict social contact and limit media consumption – my whole life is bound up in my home, children and art practice. Against all expectations, however, my life is far from calm and quiet.
The notion of the cave has become, for me, the quintessence of what a personal experience is made up of. It has been linked to the Anima and the cult of the earth mother, the symbol of fertile soil that both gives life and takes it away. Francis Bacon, developing the idea of Plato, stated that the “Idols of the Cave” arise from education and custom – in short, the past of each individual determines how they perceive things.
For me, isolation in my own cave triggered a childhood trauma that had not been resolved emotionally – a stress disorder triggered by a series of four deaths and a suicide in the family over a very short period of time. In this project, I am constructing my own personal cave by combining photographs I have made in my parent’s house with pictures of the place I am living in now. I pair these images with the experience of a physical presence in Sablinskiye Caves, near my home. In a cave your senses are deprived, encouraging hallucinations. Under similar conditions, my memory produces its own illusions.
My work explores the idea that motherhood, and the awakening of primitive instincts such as unconditional love, aggression and fear of death, make life extremely meaningful. Despite its challenges, ‘in-cave’ living boosts creativity: it becomes a personal myth, provides a plot for the project and initiates reflective processes.
1st Place – Documentary
Photographer: Chung Ming Ko
Title: Wounds of Hong Kong 7
Image Description: Chu, a 17-year-old Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (DSE) student, was hit by a police baton while taking part in a human chain at Tai Po Station, Hong Kong, on 7 September 2019. He was seen lying in his own blood on cable TV. Chu’s head needed stitches and the phalanx of the little finger on his right hand was broken, requiring six bone screws. He has decided to postpone his DSE for a year in order to tackle his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
1st Place – Environment
Photographer: Robin Hinsch
Title: Natural gas flaring site, Ughelli, Niger Delta, Nigeria.
Series Description: Covering 70,000 sq km (27,000 sq miles) of wetlands, the Niger Delta was formed primarily by sediment deposition. The region is home to more than 30 million people and 40 different ethnic groups, making up 7.5% of Nigeria’s total land mass. It used to boast an incredibly rich ecosystem, containing one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, before the oil industry moved in.
The Nigerian department of petroleum resources estimates that 1.89 million barrels were spilled in to the Niger Delta between 1976 and 1996. What’s more, a report from the United Nations suggests there have been a total of 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001, amounting to some three million barrels of oil. So far, the authorities and oil companies have done little to clean up and neutralize the Delta, and oil spills are still very common. Half of the spills are caused by pipeline and tanker accidents, while others are the result of sabotage (28%), oil production operations (21%), and inadequate production equipment (1%).
Another issue in the Niger Delta is gas flaring, a byproduct of oil extraction. As the gas burns it destroys crops, pollutes water and has a negative impact on human health. Wahala was shot in Nigeria in 2019 and draws attention to untamed economic growth and its negative impact on ecology.
1st Place – Landscape
Photographer: Ronny Behnert
Title: Torii Einootsurugi
Image Description: Einootsurugi was one of the torii which was totally hidden. It was difficult to find that amazing spot but after a few hours of searching and exploring I found the torii. The special feature here was the symmetrical arrangement through the two lamps in the foreground. I spent more than three hours at this spot because of the spiritual atmosphere at this place!
1st Place – Natural World & Wildlife
Photographer: Brent Stirton
Title: Pangolins in Crisis 1
Image Description: A Temminck’s Pangolin learns to forage again after being rescued from traffickers on the Zimbabwe/South Africa border. Pangolin caregivers at this anonymous farm care for rescued, illegally trafficked pangolins, helping them to find ants and termites to eat and keeping them safe from predators and poachers.
This is one of only three true Pangolin rescue and rehabilitation sites in the world. Pangolins are the world’s most illegally trafficked mammals, with an estimated one million being trafficked to Asia in the last ten year. Their scales are used in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine and their meat is sold as a high-priced delicacy. As a result, pangolins are listed as critically endangered and all trade or consumption is illegal.
The Tiki Hywood trust undertakes public awareness campaigns on Pangolins, trains law enforcement and judiciary personnel, conducts research, and rehabilitates pangolins that have been confiscated from the illegal trade. They are based in Zimbabwe but operate with partners across Africa and Asia.
1st Place – Portraiture
Photographer: Cesar Dezfuli
Title: Oumar. Guinea Conakry (1999).
Image Description: Left: Oumar portrayed on 1st August 2016 on board of a rescue vessel in the Mediterranean sea.
Right: Oumar portrayed on 19th January 2019 in Italy, where he currently lives.
1st Place – Sport
Photographer: Ángel López Soto
Title: Senegalese Wrestlers 3
Series Description: Wrestling has become the number one national sport in Senegal and parts of The Gambia. It belongs to a larger West African form of traditional wrestling (known as Lutte Traditionnelle) and is more popular than football.
Senegalese wrestlers practice two forms of the sport: Lutte Traditionnelle avec frappe and Lutte Traditionnelle sans frappe (international version). The sport has become a means of social ascendance, making some athletes millionaires. Fights have been known to attract audiences of around 50 thousand in a stadium. For many, it’s a slice of African life, tradition and culture, in which there is a mix of animist and Muslim beliefs.
These pictures show wrestlers training on a beach in Dakar.
1st Place – Still Life
Photographer: Alessandro Gandolfi
Title: Immortality 8
Image Description: Pieve Emanuele (Milan, Italy), the Simulation Lab with a robot-patient created by Humanitas University: an extremely realistic scenario but one with zero risks, enabling the students to train for every type of emergency.
To learn more about the images above, or if you want to see the 2nd and 3rd place winners in each category, or explore some of the previously-announced Open and National Award winners, head over to the World Photography Organization’s website.
About the author: All photos credited individually, used courtesy of the World Photography Organization.