American Photography Open 2023: Meet This Year's Finalists

By David Schonauer   Wednesday October 18, 2023

Above: Work from the American Photography Open 2023 finalists

Today we announce the 10 finalists of the American Photography Open 2023 competition. Congratulations to K M Asad; Hardijanto Budiman; Deb Fong; Zay Yar Lin; Charles Mason; R. Tom Sizemore; Aung Chan Thar; Svetlin Yosifov, Ellis Vener; and Bil Zelman.

One will be named the contest’s grand prize winner and receive $5,000 and prizes from our sponsors, including a Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 Di III VXD G2 lens for Sony mirrorless cameras; a SanDisk 1 TB Extreme Pro Portable SSD; the choice of an 8x10 open edition print with a certificate from Vital Impacts, an organization whose mission is supporting groups that protect people, wildlife and habitats; a PhotoShelter 2-year Pro account; and a 2-hour business consultation with The Photo Closer.

The nine other finalists will receive a PhotoShelter 1-year standard account and a SanDisk 256GB Extreme Pro SD card.

Go here  to see a special video featuring all the finalist's images.

To everyone who entered our competition this year, we send along our thanks. As we noted recently when we announced the 2023 shortlist, this year’s competition entries from Spain, Bulgaria, India, Indonesia and other countries around the globe, and from states across the U.S, from New Jersey, and Florida to Alaska and California. Choosing our finalists was, as it has been in the past, a challenging task—challenging, yes, but also inspiring, since we came away with a renewed appreciation for the medium of photography to reveal our world in new ways, to capture shattering beauty, and to introduce us to far-flung places and intriguing people. Herewith, this year’s finalists:

K M Asad: “Fans”

Bangladesh has never sent a soccer team to the FIFA World Cup tournament. The country, like India and Pakistan, is better known for its obsession with cricket. But every four years football fever sweeps across the country as people turn out to cheer for their favorite national team. “In Bangladesh, people are big fans of the Argentina football team, notes K M Assad, a professional documentary photographer based in Dhaka. Bangladesh’s love of Argentinian football is said to date back back to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico—the first time the event was televised in color in the South Asian country—and the historic performance of the legendary Argentinian player Diego Maradona. But today, says Assad, it is Lionel Messi his countrymen worship. And they had plenty to cheer about in 2022, when Argentina and Messi won the World Cup in Qatar.

“A company set up a giant screen at Dhaka University for people to watch the matches,” Assad says, “so I made a plan to go to there to shoot pictures of the fans.” It was during a match between Argentina and Poland that he shot the image that earned him a spot among this year’s finalists.

“I stood in front of the giant screen and watched people’s reactions,” Assad says. “After a few minutes, I noticed that whenever Messi had the ball, no one was watching me—all eyes were on the screen. So then I knew what I had to do. I waited until Messi went to make a goal and then shot.” Assad shot with a Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR and 35mm f/1.4 lens. Lighting came from the big television screen.

“When I take pictures, I like to be invisible,” says Assad, who in the past has worked on stories about humanitarian crises, including the Rohingya refugee crisis. In this case, he adds, he became invisible while standing in front of thousands of people, thanks to Lionel Messi.

See more of A K Assad’s work at his website.

Hardijanto Budiman: “This Summer Let the Wind Blow”

Indonesian photographer Hardijanto Budiman was the grand prize winner of the American Photography Open 2021 competition for his image “Devastated,” which captured the anguish of a doctor at a hospital near Jakarta in the moments after he lost a patient to covid-19. Budiman is one of this year’s finalists for a portrait of an elderly man taken in June of 2020, just a few months before he died. “His name was Surachman Bin Inang, but he was also know as Master Rosyid, and he was an artist who dedicated his life as a stage actor in the opera club in Jakarta,” says Budiman, whose portrait (shot with a Nikon Z 7 mirrorless camera) seems to capture the man’s spirit of freedom and creativity—a sensibility that Budiman brings to his own work.

“In photography I can always finding and learning something new,” Budiman says. “I have the freedom to create anything without any limitations! It is a perfect medium to express my imagination, ideas and creativity.”

Budiman, who is based in BSD City, about 40 kilometers outside of Jakarta, took up photography some 20 years ago. “Basically I'm a self-taught photographer. I decided to be a professional photographer in 2008,” he says. As we noted in 2021, he shoots everything from still-life work to landscapes and fine-art projects that mix whimsy and emotion. “My creativity flows like water in a river,” he noted. There is no perfect moment or place that makes me feel more creative. Sometimes ideas just pop into my head, as simple as that.”

See more of Hardijanto Budiman’s work at Instagram.

Deb Fong: “Black Lives Matter”

Deb Fong’s photography has evolved along with her many interests. She was a finalist in last year’s American Photography Open competition for her image of a black swan, which she shot on a trip to Cartagena, Colombia. Based in New York City, Fong took up photography two decades ago and has worked on both paid and personal subjects focused on a variety of subjects. “I am particularly interested in photographing wildlife, unique travel experiences, and humanity in many ways, from portraiture to street photography to dance,” she told us.

Following the the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Fong became active in the Black Lives Matter movement. “Pivoting my focus almost completely, I was out photographing related protests, rallies, and marches nearly daily, sometimes multiple times a day,” she says. Her nominated image this year “represents a culmination of those efforts,” she adds. She made the photo on November 7, 2020, four days after that year’s presidential election. “Most projections anticipated that Joe Biden had secured sufficient electoral votes to be named the new president-elect. Celebrations erupted on our streets in New York, and one hub of the festivities was Washington Square Park,” she says. Fong shot the scene there with a Nikon D850 camera and AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens, with illumination from a Nikon SB-800 speedlight.

“Photographing movement at night, especially in crowded, constantly evolving conditions, can be challenging. However, it is also incredibly rewarding,” says Fong. “I am continuing to focus my work on amplifying the spectrum of humanity, with an emphasis on honoring and elevating individuals and communities of color.”

See more of Deb Fong’s work on Instagram.

Zay Yar Lin:”Incense Factory”

Zay Yar Lin was the grand-prize winner of the first American Photography Open competition and has been a finalist multiple times. Though he spends his working life as a ship’s captain, Zay Yar, who is based in Yangon, Myanmar, is an avid travel photographer in his free time. “Currently I'm organizing photo tours in Myanmar, Vietnam and Mongolia during my vacation, and I’ll be working as a mentor for other photographers during the trip,” he says. He made his image “Incense Factory” in April, on a trip to the village of Quang Phu Cau in Vietnam. About an hour by car from Hanoi, the village has become a lure for photographers hoping to capture locals making traditional bright red incense.

“During the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, incense sticks are used to invite deceased ancestors back into homes to celebrate together,” notes Zay Yar notes. At Quang Phu Cau you’ll find many incense stick workshops, with beautiful layers and patterns of colorful incense sticks being dried in the sunlight. The art of incense making by the people there is a testament of their skill and dedication.”

Zay Yar used a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone to capture an aerial view of the colorful scene. Working with a drone, you have to re-orient you perspective to find a pleasing composition, he notes. “In had to make constant adjustments to altitude,” he says. “The best part of photography for me is freezing significant moments and recording the histories of people and cultures. Photography has taught me patience—how to live in the moment and look for beauty where others may miss it.”

See more of Zay Yar’s work at his website.

Charles Mason: “Sidewalk Cafe”

A longtime street photographer, Charles Mason knows this about Paris: “It’s made for walking,” he says. On a trip to the city last November, he and his wife averaged 10 miles a day for 8 days—stopping, of course, to refuel at Parisian restaurants, such as the one in his image “Sidewalk Cafe,” which he shot with a Leica Q2 digital camera while having breakfast not too far from the Eiffel Tower.

“I was photographing passersby, and watching the man with the newspaper, and the waiter in the window,” he recalls. “The light was amazing, working just right to see into the restaurant as easily as across the table—that well-defining early-morning direct sunshine.  I shot a few frames, but when the jogger appeared in my viewfinder, and the positions of everyone else was perfect, I knew I had an added element that makes the photograph a little spicier, which is always a good thing in this kind of work.”

Mason has taught photography at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for 35 years. “The teaching base is a good one to be able to work from, and my photography then informs my classroom work,” he notes. “It’s great symbiosis in life.

See more of Charles Mason’s work at website.

R. Tom Sizemore: “Tuscan Vineyard”

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” says R. Tom Sizemore. A resident of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sizemore calls himself a “lifelong photographer” — he began taking pictures at age 15 with his uncle’s Argus C3 — though it wasn’t until 2018, he says, that he “really began working” on his photography. His passion for photography — and an urge to travel after the covid crisis — led him to a scenic detour in Italy, where he made the photo above.

In June of 2022, Sizemore decided to rent a car and explore Tuscany by himself. Driving along a main highway, he spotted a turnoff that seemed promising, photographically speaking —a narrow dirt road leading to a farm. “It was stunning,” he says of the scene. “I was able to take my time to set up the shot using a tripod, because there was no traffic.” He shot with a Nikon D850 and 16-35mm lens at 16mm. He later cropped the image into a square format and used a photo-editing software to make various adjustments to the image.

Besides being a finalist in this year’s contest, Sizemore’s perfectly composed photo was the grand-prize winner of the Landscape and Travel category sponsored by Tamron Americas. You can see more of his work at his website.

See more of R. Tom Sizemore’s work at his website.

Aung Chan Thar: “Night Fisherman”

Inle Lake, the second largest lake in Myanmar, has a surface area of about 45 miles. But it isn’t deep: (During the dry season, its deepest point is 12 feet, and during the rainy season that can increase by 5 feet.) Fish caught from the lake are a staple of the local diet, and local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern of their boats on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar.

Aung Chan Thar, a photographer based in Myanmar, photographed one such fisherman plying his trade in the quiet of the night. In search of a memorable image, he decided to shoot from above and below the waterline. “I am constantly seeking unique and captivating subjects, and the night fishermen of Inle Lake provided a perfect opportunity to capture this enchanting scene,” says Aung. He faced one obvious challenge, however — he couldn’t immerse his camera, a Sony a7R IV, in water. “To overcome this, I devised a creative solution by placing a small glass mirror partially into the water and positioning my camera to shoot the mirror’s reflection,” he explains.

“Travel and photography are my life's passions, and I devote the majority of my time to exploring new destinations and capturing their essence through my lens,” says Aung, who also teaches photography and mentors young photographers.

See more of Aung Chan Thar’ work at his website.

Ellis Vener: “Josiah Benator and His Wife Birdie On the Occasion of His 100th Birthday”

Ellis Vener’s portrait of 100-year-old Josiah Bentator and his wife Birdie draws its power both from the personalities of the couple and the details of their surroundings. Josiah and Birdie are seen in the den of their Atlanta home, amid keepsakes and pictures marking their lives together. “The idea of doing it in that room, with Mr. Benitor surrounded by photos of his family, just seemed like it had the strongest sense of what they valued,” says Vener, a professional photographer based in Atlanta.

The uniform worn by the centenarian was among the telling details in the photograph. “Mr. Benitor was a longtime scout master for an Atlanta-area Boy Scout troop, and one of his former scouts who knew my work asked me if I would be interested in making his portrait in honor of his 100th Birthday. I readily agreed,” says Vener. It took some coaxing, he adds, to get Mrs. Benator into the picture, but she eventually agreed. Vener shot the portrait with a Nikon Z9 mirrorless camera and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 24.5mm. Lighting came from a pair of Flashpoint eVOLV 200 flash units in a Photek umbrella with scrim.

“After we finished the session, knowing that my late father would have been about Mr. Benitor’s age, I asked him if he served in World War II,” recalls Vener. “He looked at me, and then took me over to the table in the dinning room and showed me a shadow box in which were framed his dog tag, rank insignia, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and a few other medals. He then told me stories about being besieged by the Nazi army in the town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944.”

See more of Ellis Vener’s work at his website.

Svetlin Yosifov: ”Mundari’s Life, South Sudan”

“My adventurous spirit is my main engine, the inner flame that keeps me going,” says Bulgaria-born Svetlin Yosifov, who jumped into photography after working at a private health club that specializes in extreme sports. A finalist in last year’s American Photography Open competition, Yosifov has continued to push his adventuring and his art—he is currently based in Indonesian Papua, where he is working on a project about the Dani tribe, and is due to set out for Papua New Guinea to photograph other peoples.

His nominated image, made in October of 2021, captures a way of life at a cattle camp of Mundari tribe of South Sudan. “Ten or more families live in each cattle camp of the tribe,” he notes.  “The children are mostly orphans from other camps in infancy. They work all day for a living. Most often, their job is to clean the limbs of the cows with their hands while they are at the watering hole. I lived with the tribe for two weeks. A rapidly changing environment, in low light, makes the photographer's task very difficult.”

Svetlin shot with a Canon 6D Mark II and a Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5 lens. “The impact of a photo comes from the emotion it reflects,” he says. “When I look at my photos, I do not see personal deprivations and vicissitudes, but a living image of my nameless heroes who carry the symbol of life and forgotten traditions.”

See more of Svetlin Yosifov’s work at Instagram.

Bil Zelman: “Two Young People”

“I originally didn’t feel the need to name this image, but if it’s better for you to have one, you can call it ‘Two Young People,’” says San Diego-based fine-art and commercial photographer Bil Zelman of the photograph that earned him a spot among this year’s finalists. He made the picture this spring, during a trip to New Orleans, “understanding,” he says, “that new environments often inspire me to make imagery in new ways.” His goal was to work on a series of 10 to 15 “micro” personal projects exploring constructed narratives.

“A friend of mine at a local college was helping me to find subjects, and I created stories with several small groups. These shoots were powerfully collaborative. In the case of the 'Two Young People' photo, it’s a story that these two young friends and I told together. I love its cinematic quality and how it somehow encapsulates not only this moment but the smells, the humidity, the quiet bond between the two women, and the entire evening's drive,” Zelman says. “If anything was difficult, it was the psychology and maintaining the mood and feel inside of the car. I wanted the images to feel exactly as it is here, so we turned off the music, had no talking, and drove in perfect silence around the city.”  The scene was illuminated with a green tube light to the lower left of the frame. Zelman, scrunched far back in the car, shot with a Canon 1D X Mark IV camera and a 28mm f/1.4 lens.

See more of Bil Zelman’s work at his website.

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