American Photography Open 2021: Meet the Finalists

By David Schonauer   Wednesday October 20, 2021

The judging is over.

Today we announce the 10 finalists of the American Photography Open 2021 competition. Congratulations to Craig Bill; Hardijanto Budiman; Debdatta Chakraborty; Fernando Decillis; Diana Feil; Zay Yar Lin; John Vermette; Sarah Wouters; Steve Wrubel; and Marcin Zajac.

One will be named the contest’s grand-prize winner and receive $5,000 and prizes from our sponsors— a choice of a Tamron SP 15-30mm F2.8 Di VC USD lens (for Canon or Nikon DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with mfg. adapter; $1,299 value) or both a Tamron 17-28mm F2.8 Di III RXD and a Tamron 28-200mm F2.8-5.6 Di III RXD lens (for Sony e-mount; $1,628 total value); a SanDisk 1 TB Extreme Pro Portable SSD; a PhotoShelter two-year Pro account; and a two-hour business consultation with The Photo Closer.

The other nine finalists will receive a Tamron Prime Lens (choosing from models F050, F051, F053 for Sony e-mount or F012 or F013 for DSLRs; value up to $599), a SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro SD card and a PhotoShelter one-year standard account.

This year, as in our past competitions, we received thousands of entries from around the world, from photographers at every level, and as in the past we were deeply impressed by the accomplishments of those who shared their images with us. The photographs you’ll find from our finalists speak to the power of photography to move us and to reveal our world in new ways. You can see a video presentation here.

Craig Bill: “Garden of the Gods”

In the autumn of 2019, Craig Bill chased a thunderstorm eastward all the way from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park. “I was hoping for some great photography, if it played out right,” he says. It did: Bill, an Austin, Texas-based landscape and travel photographer who says he has “always felt at home artistically in nature,” came away with a grand image he called “Garden of the Gods.”

“By the time I arrived at the famous Glacier Point vista in Yosemite, the storm was already starting to dissipate,” he recalls. “I wasted no time setting up my camera for panoramic captures and clicked away as the light twisted and swirled. The changing lighting conditions and swift-moving storm made this a difficult image to create. I noticed the clouds were opening in the distance, giving all the onlookers a fantastic view of what I call a reverse sunset — where the setting sun lights up the opposite sky. This usually lasts only a few minutes and then it’s gone. I was happy with how the panoramic image fully displays all the detail of Yosemite from Nevada Fall to Liberty Cap to Half Dome to Mount Watkins and Basket Dome. After about 40 minutes, all the clouds broke apart and the show was completely over.” Bill shot with a Sony a7R II and 24-105mm lens at 39mm.

See Craig Bill’s website.

Hardijanto Budiman: “Devastated”

“Life is filled with uncertainty, especially during pandemic times like this,” says Hardijanto Budiman, a professional photographer based in BSD City, about 40 kilometers outside of Jakarta, Indonesia. Budiman does not classify himself as “pure” photographer. “My works are like the journey of my life. It is all about the expression of imagination, emotion and experiences,” he says. He shoots everything from fine art and still-life work to landscapes. This year he also documented the painful reality of the covid-19 crisis gripping his country.

“My friend, who is a doctor at a nearby hospital, told me that he feels devastated when he faces the sad situation where the line between life and death is very thin,” says Budiman. “With the pandemic, sometimes he was working 14 and 16 hours almost every day.” Last April 22, after receiving permission to photograph in the hospital, Budiman donned protective gear and captured the fatigue and despair of his friend, Doctor Agus Heriyanto, moments after one of his patients had passed away. He titled the image “Devastated.”

See Hardijanto Budiman’s Instagram page.

Debdatta Chakraborty: “Kebabiyana"

Based in Kolkata, India, Debdatta Chakraborty prefers to call himself a “student of photography,” because, he says, he is always learning more about the medium. “I was intrigued by photography from early childhood,” he says. “The very basic idea of capturing a moment of time on a film plate captured my imagination. Later I became a trekker in the Himalayas, and at that time documenting expeditions brought me closer to photography.”

His image “Kebabiyana” was taken last February in the city of Srinagar, the state capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India. “In Srinagar, there's a place known as Khayam Chowk. During the day time, it is no different than the other streets of the city. But just after the evening prayers from the nearby mosques fade out in the evening, this alley comes alive with street vendors lighting up charcoal ovens to cook mouthwatering kebabs,” he says. He photographed one vendor engulfed in fragrant smoke with a Nikon D750 and Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 lens. “In this particular case, an SB-700 flash unit helped me a lot,” he adds. “While smoke often adds very interesting effects in photos, too much of it often blurs the subject with the background. Here I had to wait for quite some time to get the best shot.”

See Debdatta Chakraborty’s Instagram page.

Fernando Decillis: “Searching for UFOs”

In his image “Searching for UFOs,” Atlanta, Georgia-based photographer Fernando Decillis evokes the questing imagination of youth and the delightful mystery of all the stranger things that lie around us. To create the photo, he sat his two children, Gaston and Mateo, on top of his 1980 Chevy Caprice station wagon and waited for the perfect twilight hue to transform a quiet street into place where anything might happen. “The idea for the picture came to me when I saw my kids playing with this antenna that connects to a laptop,” he says. “It reminded me of old TV antennas back in the ’80s,” he says. “I remember my dad having to go on the roof and mess with the antenna, while someone below, near the TV, would scream up to him when the signal was good. My dad would kid around and say that aliens were interfering with the signal.” Decillis shot with a Canon R5 and 28-70mm lens.

Originally from Uruguay, Decillis is a portrait and editorial photographer who has shot for brands including AT&T, Microsoft and CNN and publications such as Bloomberg Business and Vanity Fair. In 2019 he returned to Uruguay to complete a personal project on the gauchos of his homeland. “I discovered photography in my early 20s and decided that picture making was the closest thing to not having to ever work. I was almost right,” he says.

See Fernando Decillis’s website.

Diana Feil: “Diving Board 2"

The girl performing the beautiful dive in this picture is named Coco. “She is fierce,” says Diana Feil, a Los Angeles-based lifestyle and portrait photographer and, as it happens, Coco's mother. Feil shot the picture last July while visiting friends in Italy. “On one of our boat trips on Lake Como I saw this old diving board and its position, and I knew we had to take photos there!” recalls Feil, who shot the image with a Leica and 28mm fixed lens. Getting Coco to jump off the rather sketchy-looking diving apparatus was not a problem, but there were nonetheless creative challenges. “If you have ever taken photos from a boat, you know the problem,” Feil says. “You have to nail the shot in a very short time frame, because the boat is moving, and repositioning takes a lot of time.”

Formerly a television and documentary director living in Germany, Feil “reinvented” herself as a professional photographer when she moved to L.A. She is also passionate about street photography. Her latest project, “Until Further Notice — Angelenos Under The Lens,” documents what she calls “the resilience and courage” of her adopted hometown.

See Diana Fiels’s website.

Zay Yar Lin: “Tribal Identity”

Zay Yar Lin’s image “Tribal Identity,” which was also named the winner of the SanDisk "Share Your World" prize, was made last year in Ethiopia, where he had gone to take pictures and learn about local cultures. Among the locations he visited were Suri villages in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. “Suri or Surma peoples paint their faces and bodies with colorful natural clay and adorn themselves with local flowers,” he says. “I roamed in the village and looked for distinct faces to create captivating portraits. While roaming and photographing, I got the idea to create the photo of a Suri youngster surrounded by the women's hands with bracelets. I organized some Suri women with the help of local guide and took the photo to capture their tribal identity.”

“For me,” he adds, “the photograph expresses the importance of Suri kids and Suri culture.” He shot with a Nikon Z7 full-frame mirrorless camera and a Nikkor 14-30mm f/4 lens. If Zay Yar’s name sound familiar, it’s because he was the winner of the very first AP Open competition, in 2018. Based in Yangon, Myanmar, he is a ship’s captain by profession and a self-taught photographer.

See Zay Yar Lin’s website.

John Vermette: “Meteor Crater”

Scientists notes that the Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona was made some 50,000 years ago when an iron meteor plunged into Earth, leaving a gaping hole that today draws many visitors. John Vermette, a general contractor by trade with a life-long passion for astronomy and science, traveled to the crater and made this image in the wee small hours of the morning last May 5. Vermette calls himself a serious amateur photographer, though, he notes, he does sell his images online. “So I’m not sure what that makes me,” he says.

Vermette photographed the crater with the Milky Way looming overhead, a challenging feat that impressed contest judges. But that wasn’t the most challenging part, says Vermette. “The tough part was the permission needed to shoot there. It took almost a month to get it — lots of back-and-forth email,” he says. Vermette shot with a Canon 6D DSLR and a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens. The final image is a composite of two separate exposures for the sky and the foreground. (Sky: 15 sec. at f/1.4, ISO 3200; foreground: 120 sec. at f/1.4, ISO 3200.)

See John Vermette’s Facebook page.

Sarah Wouters: “Protection”

For the first time in the history of the AP Open contest, two entries focusing on the same subject have been selected as finalists. Zay Yar Lin’s image of the Suri people of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley was shot in black and white, while Bangkok,Thailand-based photographer Sarah Wouters’s photo “Protection” was made in color. Wouters, who has traveled to Ethiopia four times in the past two years, led a group of other photographers there in January 2020, when she made this portrait of a Suri boy. “I played with composition,” she says. “I wanted the boy surrounded with women's hands full of jewelry and copper armbands. I named it ‘Protection’ because many young boys around this region had been killed or kidnapped,” she says. Wouters shot in natural light, using a reflector, with a Sony a7R II and Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens.

Wouters, who is Dutch, is a veteran traveler—“I’ve been to more than 70 countries,” she notes—and often leads others on photo trips to Mongolia, Myanmar, Ethiopia and other places. “I usually capture people, festivals, nature and anything that seduces my eyes with beautiful lighting and composition,” she says.

See Sarah Wouters’s Instagram page.

Steve Wrubel: “Sky”

When he was young, Steve Wrubel accompanied his parents to the commercial photo studio where catalog images were shot for their retail business — The Nature Company. “I was always fascinated by the action in the studio,” he recalls. After finishing undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Wrubel, having decided to pursue a career as a photographer, went back to that same studio to work. He later did graduate work at the Brooks Institute of Photography and, as he puts it, “never looked back.” Today he is a professional photographer based in Dallas, Texas.

One of Wrubel’s most recent personal projects focused on rodeo. “I had the idea to shoot rodeo as fine art by taking the background out of my images. I wanted the viewer to focus completely on the subject rather than the disruptive arena background, something akin to what Richard Avedon did in his series ‘The American West,’” says Wrubel. His image “Sky” was made at the Mesquite, Texas, rodeo arena in 2020, using a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 70-200mm lens. In the case of this picture, Wrubel photographed clouds separately and added them to the image. “I do that when I think it will enhance the photograph,” he says.

See Steve Wrubel’s website.

Marcin Zajac: “Alien Throne”

Last spring, Marcin Zajac hit the road, leaving the San Francisco Bay Area, where he works as a software engineer, and heading to the badlands of New Mexico. “With the pandemic, it was the perfect time to drive to a remote desert and camp away from civilization for a few days,” he says. It was also a perfect place for Zajac to explore with his camera. “The landscape there looks otherworldly, especially once the sun sets and the stars and planets appear. I knew I wanted to shoot against the backdrop of the Milky Way,” says Marcin, who often shoots landscapes and has what he calls a “special love” for astrophotography.

He was taken with one sandstone rock formation in particular. His image of it, which he titled “Alien Throne,” was also named the winner of the Tamron World Through Your Lens/Travel prize. To capture the scene, he shot two exposures—one for the foreground and one for the sky. “The sky exposure was taken using an iOptron star tracker, which allowed me to take a two-minute exposure without capturing any star trails,” he notes. “The foreground was shot earlier at night with the tracker turned off to get sharp foreground.” He shot with a Nikon D600 and a Tamron 15-30mm lens.

See Marcin Zajac’s website.


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