Five arresting photos that teach us important lessons about the world today

The UAE SDG Photography Award, held in collaboration with HIPA, has announced the five winners for its inaugural edition

Welcome the Bride by Jubo Cao (China) won the Peace category in the inaugural UAE SDG Photography Awards. Jubo Cao
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A Tajik wedding in China. A wind farm in the Philippines. An abstract view of a construction site. These are some of the winning images of the inaugural UAE SDG Photography Award.

The winners were announced on Wednesday, October 23 at an award ceremony in the Dubai Frame. They are Jubo Cao from China, Turan Topalar from Tukey, Danilo Victoriano, Jr from the Philippines, Rakesh Pulapa from India and Hussein Mohammed Ali from Egypt. Each winner will receive $5,000 (Dh18,400) as their prize.

Held as a collaboration between the General Secretariat of the UAE National Committee on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Hamdan bin Mohammad Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award (HIPA), the award was established as a way to raise awareness for the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, a framework of 17 key points to address global issues such as poverty, inequality, conflict and climate change.

For the competition, the National Committee of SDGs distilled the 17 goals into five themes or categories that the contestants submitted to – peace, prosperity, human, earth and partnerships.

In May of this year, an international open call for submissions was announced. The five winners were selected from a pool of 4,105 contestants from 132 countries. The contest judges, including photographer Abdulla Al Buqaish, sorted through 7,000 images to find the winning ones. “The most important thing for us when we judge a photo is the details. We check the colours, the angles, the people, the life of the photo,” he said.

At the ceremony, Abdulla Nasser Lootah, Director General of the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority and Vice Chairman of the National Committee on Sustainable Development Goals, noted how the photographers used their images to tell a story. He added, “The UAE SDG Photography Award focuses on boosting global awareness on the goals to inspire communities around the world to build a future.”

Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment and Chairman of the Global Council on Sustainable Development, added that spurring change cannot not be limited to government initiatives alone. Art can play a role too.

“Photography is one of those initiatives that can shed light on SDGs in an innovative and encouraging way,” he said.

The winning images

Human: Syrian Refugees in Turkey by Turan Topalar

Turan Topalar from Turkey is the winner of the Human Theme Award. Turan Topalar

For the Human theme, photographers had to submit a portfolio of images that provided a narrative for the category. Turan Topalar’s images offer intimate portraits of Syrian refugees in Istanbul, highlighting their hardship while upholding their humanity.

A tailor by trade, he has been practising photography since 1991. Primarily working with documentary and street photography, Topalar set out to Suleymaniye district of Istanbul to photograph the refugees who had moved into the area’s abandoned homes.

Now, three years into the project, Topalar has become more involved in the community, setting up donation initiatives to provide the refugees with food and money.

“Almost 70 million people are displaced around the world. In Turkey, there are almost four million. There are people in the US or here who may not be able to see what is happening in the refugees’ lives. What I see, I should show to the world too. These people deserve to live in their own land,” he said, adding that his own personal history has made him more attuned to the plight of displaced people.

Partnerships: Base by Hussein Mahmoud Alshafai

Hussein Mahmoud Alshafai from Egypt is the winner of the Partnerships Theme Award. Hussein Mahmoud Alshafai

In this painting-like visual, Egyptian photographer Hussein Mahmoud Alshafai intended to erase obvious references to time and geography in order to send a more universal message about collaboration. His photo is a top view of a construction site in Egypt, which Alshafai took from the 10th floor of a nearby building.

“To build something requires cooperation between people, material and process. It doesn’t matter who a person is, if he is in a senior role or junior role. They all have to work together and forget their differences so the project gets built,” he said, adding that the construction site becomes a model for bigger undertakings. “This can be applied to societies, government entities, countries – you have to have partnerships so you can achieve something.”

In 2015, Alshafai was also given a photography award by National Geographic Abu Dhabi. A fine arts graduate, the interior designer has been practicing photography for almost 20 years.

Peace: Welcome the Bride by Jubo Cao

Jubo Cao from China is the winner of the Peace Theme Award. Jubo Cao

The Chinese photographer’s winning image is of a Tajiki wedding celebration in Pamir Plateau of Xinjiang, China. Cao’s love for photography spans 38 years. He runs educational photographic workshops and tours in Shanghai. According to Cao, his photo was taken during one of his tours after the local government had informed them of the celebration.

The Tajiks are one of the minority ethnic and religious groups in China. “I chose this photo is because [Tajiks] are not a very well-known ethnicity in China. It shows to us that even if they are not rich and they don’t have money, they love each other. They are happy and they enjoy life. Right now, it is very hard to see this type of family,” he said.

Earth: Distinguished Similarities! by Rakesh Pulapa

Rakesh Pulapa from India is the winner of the Earth Theme Award. Rakesh Pulapa

Rakesh Pulapa’s aerial shot of a sprawling residential community next to a dense stretch of mangroves puts nature and infrastructural development on two opposite sites, but what the Indian photographer wants to highlight is the delicate balance between progress and preservation.

"The only thing I want to convey through my image is to coexist. We must find a way to coexist with nature. Mangroves, especially in coastal areas, they are very crucial. They act as a shield against floods, waves and storms. They create livelihoods, add to biodiversity and create ecotourism. I feel some people don't realise the power of mangroves," he said, noting the fact that 32 million hectares of mangroves around the world have been altered or destroyed.

Pulapa was working on a personal photography on mangroves and was using Google Earth as part of his research. He stumbled across this area in Kakinada, located in South India, and set out to capture an image of it with his drone.

Prosperity: Wind of Hope by Danilo Victoriano, Jr

Danilo Victoriano, Jr from the Philippines is the winner of the Prosperity Theme Award. Danilo Victoriano, Jr

A mother helps her young daughter study as windmills spin outside the window. This photograph by Danilo Victoriano was taken on a wind farm in Bangui, Ilocos Norte, Philippines. Since the establishment of these windmills, the average price of electricity in the area dropped, allowing poor communities in the area to access sustainable energy.

Victorino owns a computer shop in Antipolo, Rizal, and has been submitting to the HIPA for the last six years. “I’m really happy to have won something associated with HIPA,” he said. “It’s on the bucket list for a lot of photographers. It’s a big accomplishment [for me].”

Speaking of how he came to visualise this image, he explained: "I visited the wind farm around 2006 as a newbie photographer. For some photographers, the windmills are just a tourist spot or an 'Instagrammable' location. When I came back [to the farm] six years later with my family, I wanted to take a different approach. I wanted to create a photo with a good story, and connect the benefits of the windmills to ordinary people."