Interview with disqualified winner of National Geographic Photo Contest

Harry Fisch's disqualified winning image from National Geographic Photo Contest

First published in Photography Week iPad magazine.

Harry Fisch’s image, ‘Varanasi, India’, caused a stir earlier this year when it was chosen as the winning shot in the Places category of the prestigious National Geographic Photo Contest 2012, only to be disqualified shortly afterward for editing out a bag using Photoshop. We caught up with him to discuss his thoughts on National Geographic’s decision, and travel photography.

Having been born in France to Spanish and Hungarian parents, it’s no wonder 60-year-old Harry speaks five languages and travels the world with his camera. Harry has been shooting for 45 years, the last five professionally.

Varanasi, India, by Harry Fisch

Another image from Varanasi, India, by Harry Fisch. This image has been shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards 2013, in the Low Light category.

Q: You made the headlines recently by winning – and then being disqualified from – the National Geographic Photo Contest. Do you feel the decision was justified?

A: Yes. Rules are made to be followed. When you enter a photographic contest you are dependent on these rules. Now, it’s possible to have a discussion about the legitimacy of a specific rule, but this should be done outside of the contest. I made the mistake of thinking that rules could be interpreted.

Q: Why do you feel so many major competitions like this still have rules against photo manipulation when so many photographers do it?

A: I believe they do it to help simplify the process. When you have 22,000 submissions, for instance, you don’t have time to debate the thin line between some images. I would endorse a clarification of what some rules and terms actually mean, though.

Harry Fisch's disqualified winning image from National Geographic Photo Contest

Varanasi, India, by Harry Fisch. This image originally won, and then was disqualified from, the National Geographic Photo Contest

Q: Your image that nearly won – tell us about where and how it was taken.

A: It was of Assi Ghat, at Varanasi, in India. A ghat is a series of stairs leading down to the body of water, and Assi Ghat can accommodate around 22,000 people during festivals/ I arrived at 5.15am, before dawn, and set up my camera on a tripod and waited to see what would unfold. As the world came to life I was surrounded by mud, garbage, cows, beggars, flower salesmen, travellers and crowds of pilgrims – it was an amazing scene. This shot is part of a wider project on religious practices in Asia, where, instead of creating a series that tells a story, each individual photograph tells a story by itself. I do wonder, though, why this picture was considered ‘false’ with the bag erased, yet real with the bag left in. Is it any different than cropping it out?

Q: Your images have a very distinct look – rich, heavy tones, often vignetting, and also typically a relationship between your subjects. How did you develop this style?

A: My style is oneiric, or dreamlike. My images are heavily influenced by aesthetics, and I give preference to the pictorial result before authenticity. For instance, I nearly always modify the colours in my images, particularly the colour temperature, and I like to use vignetting to emphasise subjects. But I only use these devices when I feel that they add value to the story being told.

Q: You also shoot a lot in very low light. Do you shoot handheld, and how do you get sharp images in what often looks like pitch-black night?

A: I never shoot handheld in low light. It can be cumbersome to carry, but I always take a tripod on shoots. I also often use a remote shutter release. In my low-light photography I’m looking for quieter, reflective moments, so I spend a lot of this time waiting for the moment when everything stops. Getting this moment requires a bit of luck. And, frankly, luck – when everything falls into place – is often a key factor in some of the best pictures.

Down Time by Harry Fisch

Buddhist monks at the sacred pilgrimage site of Namo Buddha, Nepal.

Q: What’s your method for getting close to your subjects?

A: If I have the time, I like to slowly mix in and become part of the scenario, whatever it may be. Having the patience to take your time and let people familiarise themselves with you – and get used to having a photographer around – is the best way I’ve found of getting potential subjects to trust you, and act naturally in front of your camera. A smile also goes a long way. Just be sincere and look people in the eye when talking to them – even if you don’t know the language!

Q: What types of locations particularly draw your interest? 

A: Perhaps unusually for a travel photographer. I hate crowds. I hate noise. When I’m someplace like India, where I shot the Assi Ghat image, I enjoy places where I can find peace amongst the multitude the most. I’m interested in people, but not chaos. But my overall rule in finding locations to photograph is that it must be a reality that isn’t readily available to us.

Q: How do you choose your subjects – is it in much the same way? 

A: I haven’t the slightest idea! No, in all seriousness, I plan my pictures and pre-compose what I expect will be in the final picture. First I find the location, then look at it from different angles, analysing the light. Then I consider it from different focal lengths and try to plan for the inclusion of people in the frame. Once I have this framework set, I then only have to wait for things to happen.

Interview via Photography Week.

You can see more of Harry’s images at his website, or on his blog.

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