A Cultural Lens: National Geographic’s Contest Winners

by: Stephanie Roush

August 23, 2012


Travel photography has always struck me as one of the most interesting forms of photography.  It is often marked by a sense of wonder, awe or amazement. The best travel photos lend themselves to a feeling of discovery; they capture a moment when a greater truth about culture or place reveals itself to the photographer. Capturing the unknown on film familiarizes it and allows us to experience other cultures more intimately. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words rings truest when applied to travel photography.

For years, National Geographic has been at the forefront of travel journalism, and each year their Traveler Photo Contest inspires the submission of some of the year’s most stunning photographs (see 2011′s winning photo above). This year, the top three photos represent three drastically different cultures, generations and places, yet each photo accomplishes the difficult task of capturing a beautiful moment of everyday life that elucidates both culture and place.

The first place winner, titled “Butterfly,” uses lighting and color to portray the cultural crossroads of the new and old. Taken in Kyrgyz lands of the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, the photo uses light contrast to highlight the cultural contrast of the two women dressed in traditional garb and the modern technologies amongst which they sit.  These women live in the extremely remote lands, yet they are equipped with some of the same modern technologies as the Western world.

The striking reds and whites of the photo create balance and enhance the aesthetic.  The woman sitting at the focal point of the photo looks longingly off to the side, creating the sense that her thoughts are elsewhere. This winning photo invites the viewer into the one most sacred places of any culture, the home, and encourages awe for their foreign lifestyle while simultaneously reminding us that we have more in common with these women than we think. 

In striking contrast to the winning photo, the second pick depicts the unbridled joy of children at play. The choice to shoot in black and white makes the photo seem timeless and almost dreamlike. The repetition of the childrens’ pose of one hand extended into the foggy air compliments the silhouettes of the trees in the background of the photo.  Although taken in the Son La province of Vietnam, the photo’s location is rendered more or less irrelevant. The photo comments on the universality of the moment the photographer has captured. Every day in all corners of the globe children play, and this photo celebrates this treasured pastime in the most visually stunning of ways.

Exhaustion might be the best word to describe the most powerful feeling expressed by the third place winner of the contest. Three men rest after a night of carrying of an intricate scene of the Passion of Christ on their shoulders. Shot in Trapani, Italy, a port city on the northwest coast of Sicily. The photo represents the trials of devotion and is one of the only winning photos that explicitly portray religion. The lighting in this photo is what makes it so appealing.  The way that Christ is lit up while the three men remain in more neutral lighting drastically enhances the aesthetic of the photo and displays the photographer’s acute attention to detail.  What I like most about this photo is its humility.  It doesn’t boast a dazzling landscape or even a painterly color balance. The emotional content of the photo remains its most stunning aspect, bringing us closer to the three men’s physical exhaustion as well as their dutiful completion of a religious tradition. 

Like all artistic competitions, the National Geographic Travel Photo Contest is highly subjective, yet all the photos they recognized this year are absolutely worthy of recognition. With modern technology the power of travel photography has grown to the point that one photo can significantly increase our understanding of even the most foreign locales and cultures.       


To see more from the winners gallery, go here


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