American Photography Open 2019: Meet the Winner, Alain Schroeder

By David Schonauer   Thursday November 7, 2019


Last month we revealed the ten finalists.

Today, we introduce the winner of the American Photography Open 2019 competition — Brussels, Belgium-based photojournalist Alain Schroeder.

The founder of Belgium’s Reporters photo agency, Schroeder has worked on stories around the globe. His images have appeared in National Geographic, GEO, and Paris Match, as well as in more than 30 books focusing on China, Iran, the Renaissance, ancient Rome, the gardens of Europe, Thailand, Tuscany, Crete, Vietnam, Budapest, and Venice. His series on kid jockeys in Indonesia took first place in the Sports, Stories category of the 2018 World Press Photo competition. He has also documented the Rohingya refugee crisis and rituals of death in Indonesia.

From October 2018 through April 2019, Schroeder was in Sumatra, Indonesia, to document efforts to aid the area’s critically endangered orangutans. The result was a profoundly moving series about a species that shares 96 percent of its DNA with humans.

“When you look at them in the eyes, it's like your brother,” Schroeder told CNN.

Orangutans live only in the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo, but their habitat is shrinking because of human development. Rubber and palm oil plantations keep sprouting up, and more roads are being built, notes Schroeder. A century ago, the orangutan population was thought to be over 300,000; now there are less than 70,000, and the Sumatran orangutan is down to about 14,000.

Schroeder documented the work of two organizations, the the Orangutan Information Center and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), which provide medical care for orangutans that are rescued from the jungle or confiscated from private owners.

Among the latter was a three-month-old female named Brenda, who had been confiscated from a villager on the west coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. The humerus bone in her left arm had been snapped in two. Using a Fujifilm X-Pro2, Schroeder photographed Dr. Andreas Messikommer, a renowned orthopedic surgeon from Switzerland whose more usual patients are people in and around Lausanne and Montreux, performing a three-hour operation on Brenda.

One of his pictures of the operation earned Schroeder the top spot in this year’s AP Open contest.

“This series documents the incongruous behavior between man and the environment in Sumatra,” Schroeder writes in the project statement for the project. “On the one hand, humans destroy virgin forests, wounding and killing animals, while on the other hand they do everything possible to save them.”

The organizations Schroeder worked with in Sumatra aim to rehabilitate injured orangutans and train them for reintroduction to the wild “to create new self-sustaining, genetically viable populations in protected forests,” he notes.

The main challenge he faced during the project, Schroeder says, was obtaining permission to follow the SOCP team. But, he adds, the project was also emotionally demanding. He recalls in particular the time he and a SOCP team came across a Hope, a Sumatran orangutan who had been shot with 74 pellets, leaving her blinded. She also had a baby who was a few months old. The rescue team drove 12 hours to get the pair to a hospital. On the way, the baby died, probably due to malnutrition.

Hope survived after surgery for a broken clavicle. But the baby’s death hurt everyone involved.

“You could see all the members of the team, they were totally devastated. Everyone was close to crying,” Schroeder says.

Schroeder (above) discovered photography at age 18. “I spent a lot of time at the library reading fine-art books. When I had seen all the books they had about painting, the librarian gave me some photography books,” he recalls. He devoured photography magazines, discovering the work of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, and Kishin Shinoyama.

He began his own photography career shooting sports during what he calls the “golden age” of tennis, when stars like Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova ruled the courts. But that, he notes at his website, was “in another life.”

Schroeder’s series on the orangutans has been widely praised, and the AP Open judges lauded its intimacy and emotional power. The images express the deep connection mankind has with orangutans, who are known to make simple tools and can be taught human communication skills, such as sign language.

“It was my first experience with the orangutan,” Schroeder has noted. “I have never seen chimpanzees or gorillas. But looking at them, it's like: ‘OK, this guy must be my ancestor. I am sure.’ ”

On behalf of all the judges and sponsors for this year’s AP Open competition, we congratulate Schroeder for being named this year’s grand-prize winner. He takes home $5,000, plus a Tamron SP 70-200 F/2.8 Di VC USD G2 (Canon or Nikon mount), value $1299, a SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD, a Skylum suite of software (including Luminar, Aurora HDR and Photolemur), a Fujifilm X-T3 camera, a two-hour business consultation with The Photo Closer and a PhotoShelter 2-year Pro account.

Meanwhile, mark your calendars: The AP Open 2020 contest will kick off next March.