In 2018, Turkish photojournalist Uygar Önder Şimşek says he entered the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards under a pseudonym in order to protect his identity. His work was shortlisted, but the Awards mistakenly sent his real name to the media, forcing him to flee his homeland. He currently lives in exile.
Editor’s note: Sony is just a sponsor of the Awards and is not associated with its operation nor judging, both of which are handled by the World Photography Organization.
Şimşek, who has been living in exile in Germany since 2018, tells PetaPixel that while he was angry at the time, he decided not to reach out to any organization to tell his story as he had lost faith in the media due to his experience. However, after he saw that a photojournalist in Myanmar was able to win an award for their work anonymously, his faith in some aspects of the media was renewed and he decided to come forward.
In short, Şimşek wants to highlight the importance of anonymity for photojournalists working in certain countries. Because many competitions are marketing opportunities for companies and organizations as well as photographers, he thinks it is especially important to hold brands to particular standards so that members of the press can continue to do their work safely — work that he argues is necessary for the freedom of information around the world.
Why He Needed a Pseudonym
According to Cultural Survival, efforts to suppress Kurdish culture in Turkey have been widespread, long-lasting, and significant. The Turkish government — widely regarded as a dictatorial regime — has actively oppressed journalists and photographers who report stories that highlight the achievements of any Kurdish people.
The photo series Şimşek entered into the Sony World Photography Awards was titled “Retaking Raqqa” and depicted the Kurdish Syrian YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, which is also known as the People’s Protection Units) taking the ISIS capital city of Raqqa. The YPG is seen as a terrorist organization in Turkey.
In this case, a Turkish photographer showing Kurdish soldiers succeeding in a military endeavor would be seen as a violation of policy for the Turkish government. Nonetheless, Şimşek — as a photojournalist — believed that it was his duty to show these events to as many people as possible, and using competitions to do so is not an uncommon approach.
Entering the Competition
Şimşek entered the Sony World Photography competition in 2018 under a pseudonym (which he has asked not to be disclosed). It is a name he had used in the past and had been using for some time to protect his identity. He would later be notified that he had been shortlisted in the competition, normally cause for excitement and celebration. To make sure his identity was protected, Şimşek emailed the organizers that it was crucial that the images only be published under his assumed name.
To this point, the Sony World Photography Awards and Şimşek are in agreement: Şimşek entered the competition and was shortlisted. But the Awards and Şimşek then diverge in the retelling of what happened next.
According to the World Photography Awards, Şimşek entered the competition using his real name, and only after being told that he had been selected for the shortlist did he ask to have the images attributed to an assumed name.
“In regards to Uygar Önder Şimşek, having reviewed all the correspondence and spoken to the team here I can confirm that in 2018 Mr. Şimşek entered the competition under his real name and only after he was notified he had been shortlisted, asked us to use a pseudonym,” a Sony World Photography Awards representative tells PetaPixel.
“Although this isn’t something we’ve been previously asked to do, we did accommodate his request and attempted to override our system’s automated processes manually. Despite manually working through this, his name on his original entry was used for the shortlist announcement at the time. To note, we have since updated our backend systems to allow for automated changes to an individual’s name.”
Şimşek denies that this was how events transpired and says that he did in fact register under a pseudonym but used his real email and ID in contact details, which he admits was a mistake. He says that even in the metadata of the photos, his pseudonym was used.
Still, he says that even if what the Awards claimed was true, he was contacted a full month before the competition results were publicized. Throughout that time, Şimşek was in regular contact with the Awards team and constantly reminded them that they could not publish the photos under his real name because of the damage it would do to him personally.
PetaPixel has received copies of these emails and verifies these claims.
Şimşek was told not to worry and that as long as he filled out specific paperwork, it would be okay and the Awards would not publish his real name.
“There were two places for the name in that form, one for real name, one for the name you publish,” Şimşek says.
Unfortunately, not all went as he was assured, and the Sony World Photography Awards released his real name as part of a press package that went to a large list of international media organizations. Proof that his real name was associated with those photos can still be found online.
“Right away, I emailed them and told them that they messed up and they should remove everything immediately,” Şimşek recalls. “First, a kind woman called me and we decided that they should publish something to fix it.”
The Awards quickly published a public redaction of Şimşek’s name in association with the winning photos.
Şimşek says that through this fallout, Turkish Nationalinalists started the hashtag #boycotsony on Twitter, which he says was a trending topic in his region.
Roughly translated, the tweet above reads: “Boycott, Big scandal from Sony: the award was given to YPG! Organized by Sony every year and now for the 11th time, the 2018 World Photography Awards competition shows the funeral of a terrorist, the photo made it to the final!”
Soon after, the CEO of the Awards — Scott Gray, who had not been in contact before this point — emailed Şimşek to tell him that they would be forced to take his photos out of the competition because he used a “fake name.” This was in contrast to the previous emails the organization had sent assuring Şimşek that using a pseudonym was not only allowed but would be respected.
PetaPixel reviewed copies of the emails that verify this story.
As a bit of background, one month prior to the public release of Şimşek’s name by the Photo Awards, he was arrested by Turkish officials for photos he captured between 2015 and 2016. During that trial, Şimşek defended himself by saying he had stopped working on Kurdish-related issues in 2016, an argument that appeared to be working.
But after his name was associated with the World Photography Awards, multiple Turkish pro-state media organizations targetted Şimşek, and he says that the court atmosphere immediately changed. Şimşek says he was already on thin ice with the Turkish government, but the gaff by the World Photography awards gave the government more reason to tie him to “terror propaganda” charges.
Şimşek was tried in late June of 2018 and found guilty of the terrorism charges and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. However, Şimşek’s lawyers appealed the decision to be reviewed by the upper courts, which bought him time. He says he knew the upper court would agree with the decision, and used the period of three months between hearings to look for a way out of the country in violation of a travel ban issued to him by the court.
In late September of 2018, he managed to escape. Some weeks later, the ruling was — as expected — upheld by the upper courts. Should Şimşek ever return to Turkey, he would be immediately arrested and sent to prison.
The Sony World Photography Awards, which has a different set of contact personnel in 2021 than it did in 2018, argues that, based on the records they could find from its interaction with Şimşek, it did the best that it could. The organization says that as soon as it learned of the mistake that caused Şimşek’s real name to get published, it began working very closely with him to fix the issue.
“At his request, [the Sony World Photography Awards] retracted his real name from the competition and issued statements in English and Turkish,” a representative tells PetaPixel. “During these conversations, Mr. Şimşek made it clear that his safety and security would be compromised should he not be shortlisted anonymously as he was already under scrutiny by the relevant authorities and an investigation into him had started in 2017.”
The organization then defends the actions that it took afterward.
“As these events continued to unfold it became clear that maintaining his position in the competition will only serve to compromise him and exacerbate his situation further and out of genuine concerns for this safety a decision was made to withdraw his images,” the representative concludes.
The World Photography Awards then provided a link to a 2016 story that features Şimşek’s name and work with the YPG, in what appears to be an attempt to show that he has used his real name in association with Kurdish photos in the past.
While Şimşek says he had used his real name in interviews and in photo bylines with related events in the past, it was before the attempted military coup in 2016 that he says changed everything.
“In late 2016, there was a military coup attempt in Turkey but also the peace deal between Kurdish PKK and Turkish state was broken,” he explains. “So the atmosphere changed for journalists on the ground. Day by day, some colleagues were getting arrested and we were all getting worried about ourselves too. Some friends stopped working on some issues, some even quit journalism as the number of journalists in jail got around 150 for a while.
“So I decided to use a pseudonym on my Kurdish-related journalistic work for my personal security, like many other journalists in history. At the same time, I was making commercial pictures and videos in turkey with my real name. So I separated the ‘work’.”
Şimşek says he only did a few projects under the pseudonym starting in 2017. Later that year, he went to Syria to cover the battle of the Kurdish YPG-led Syrian democratic forces retaking the ISIS capital of Raqqa with the support of the United States and continued to use the pseudonym.
“For four months in Syria, I worked regularly for Deutsche Presse-Agentur under that pseudonym and did assignments for Der Spiegel and some other magazines,” he says.
Şimşek admits it is possible that even if he did not have those photos published under his real name, it is entirely possible that at some point the state would have found him guilty anyway. Still, he maintains that the publication of the images only gave the Turkish government more to hold against him, specifically “evidence of terror propaganda.”
He says that all he really wanted out of this was an apology, something he never received. Instead of receiving that apology, Şimşek says he feels blamed for what happened and believes that the World Photography Awards did its best to cover up its mistake.
“They told me that they had to take my story out because they cannot promote false information,” he reiterates, in contrast to the original communication he had with the organization. “This is what happens when journalism turns into a big company’s public relations and marking space.”
Since his exile, Şimşek says he has received a lot of financial support from NGOs and the German state in the form of fellowship scholarships that help cover his needs and ongoing projects. Şimşek wants to make it clear that he isn’t in any current danger, and while his life is not easy, there is hope for a better life for him going forward.
However, he does want to take this time to highlight how important it is for photojournalists to have the ability to not only share their images but also stay anonymous when they need to.
“My story also tells a lot about the conditions of freelancers when they are in trouble,” he says. “Not many people seem to care.”
Image credits: All photos by Uygar Önder Şimşek as part of his series “Retaking Raqqa” and used with permission.