Like any new mom, Sharlie Brown was anticipating special moments with her baby. A technician at a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, immunogenetics lab, she decided a high-quality camera would be the best way to capture them. She had no idea where that maternal instinct would lead. Twelve years later, Brown now runs a successful photography business on the side.

She’s also the grand prize winner of Smithsonian’s 21st Annual Photography Contest, which drew 30,728 submissions from 5,324 photographers in 128 countries around the globe. “I feel like I’m walking in my purpose,” Brown says.

The young woman featured in her winning photograph, a model named Seriana Gamble, exudes a similar confidence. “She sits on the step with a poise that says, ‘I own this space,’” says Smithsonian magazine creative director Maria Keehan, a contest judge. “She betrays no nervousness or timidity.”

Brown hopes that confidence is contagious. “As the mother of two beautiful Black girls at the impressionable ages of 13 and 8, I know the importance of them seeing themselves in the world. This photo represents not just beauty, but American beauty.”

(You can view all 60 finalists from the competition here.)

Grand Prize

a woman sits on stop with high columns behind her
Sharlie Brown

Sharlie Brown, 40
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Photographed: May 2023

Brown was commissioned by local stylist Erica Garrett-Ray to photograph a series celebrating women of color. The model, Seriana Gamble, strikes just the right pose, merging strength and beauty. “Her face is regal and stoic, but she has a softness about her,” Brown says. Smithsonian chief photo editor Quentin Nardi adds: “She is not smack in the middle of the frame, so your eye lingers, taking everything in. Her image only slowly reveals itself.”

Announcing the Winners of the 21st Annual Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest

American Experience

a women in a blue dress stands in the desert
Cortney Armitage

Cortney Armitage, 48
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Photographed: October 2020

Armitage and musician Fiona Silver, photographed standing defiantly among teddy bear cholla cacti, once toured “the dank bars of New York City” together—Armitage shooting for music magazines and Silver rocking the stage. Then Covid-19 gripped the globe, and all their gigs dried up. “Our careers died together,” says Armitage, who relocated to California before the outbreak. When the friends reunited in fall 2020, an impromptu photo shoot was inevitable. The resulting image represents resilience and the American spirit to persevere. “I think we were both hoping, unspoken, to capture something that said: We’re both still here.”


a aerial view of the people traveling on a boat
Azim Khan Ronnie

Azim Khan Ronnie, 36
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Photographed: April 2022

For the Muslim holy festival of Eid al-Fitr, millions of residents of Dhaka board ships on the Buriganga River to travel to their home villages inside Bangladesh for a few days with their families. The voyage can be dangerous, as ships are overcrowded, some carrying double or triple the normal load. When they reach capacity, travelers head to rooftop decks. Despite the risks, the celebratory atmosphere is hard to miss. From shore, Ronnie hoped to capture the chaotic joy, and he launched a drone equipped with a camera to photograph more than 50 vessels bursting with boisterous, colorful crowds. “You
can see people’s happiness,” he says.


a group of museum visitors look at a golden mask that is behind glass
Zhou Xiujian

Zhou Xiujian, 44
Guanghan, China
Photographed: October 2023

Zhou visited the Sanxingdui Museum, which displays finds from a nearby ancient ceremonial site, to photograph cultural relics, but throngs of visitors made it impossible to get a clean shot. Approaching this 3,000-year-old gold mask, unearthed in 2021, Zhou stepped behind the transparent display case and pressed his camera to the glass, capturing not only the mask but also the many other visitors looking at him. “The mask and faces seem to be engaged in a dialogue spanning thousands of years,” he says.

Natural World

a baby alligator puts its head above water
Kent Stuart

Kent Stuart, 77
Everglades National Park, Florida
Photographed: April 2023

Stuart, a retired auto industry manager, was exploring the Everglades during the wet season, when the grasslands flood. He noticed a pool had formed near the side of the road, and he climbed down to the water’s edge. That’s when he spotted a baby alligator swimming by, headed toward a culvert that passed beneath the road. He quickly scrambled to a spot above the tunnel. “We both got there at the same time,” Stuart recalls, “and in a moment of fate he or she stopped for a few seconds and just floated there, as if to say, ‘OK, here is your shot.’”   


a red rabbit sculptor is reflected in a window
Michel Kharoubi

Michel Kharoubi, 60
Nice, France
Photographed: August 2023

Kharoubi, a retired corporate film director, has decades of experience using images to tell stories. His art is “a passage to the imaginary from reality,” he says. For this photograph, inspired in part by Alice in Wonderland, he noticed the red rabbit behind the window of a closed hair salon, then searched for the perfect angle to capture the rabbit, the metal grate and especially the reflection of the woman walking past. Kharoubi describes the worlds he creates as escapes from the banality of our everyday lives. “The camera is only a tool,” he says. “The important thing is our view of the world.”


a man in a cowboy hat stands for a portrait outside of a nighclub
Rory Doyle

Rory Doyle, 40
Indianola, Mississippi
Photographed: June 2023

Photojournalist Doyle, a repeat Smithsonian photo contest winner, has been chronicling life in the Mississippi Delta region he calls home for years, often using an old Nikon DSLR or Sony A9 mirrorless camera. But when he spotted cowboy Archie Beckworth at the reopening of newly renovated Club Ebony, the historic Blues joint made famous by local legend B.B. King, he pulled out his iPhone. “You don’t need a $5,000 camera to make a beautiful portrait,” says Doyle, who was drawn to the sliver of light illuminating Beckworth’s eyes. “The light brings the viewer’s eyes toward his. In Archie’s eyes, I see hope and positivity.”

Readers' Choice

Huli Tribesmen with yellow face paint standing with other tribesmen
Roberto Pazzi

Roberto Pazzi, 50
Papua New Guinea
Photographed: August 2023

Travel photographer Pazzi specializes in capturing and preserving the traditions and practices of Native and Indigenous cultures that are “quickly and silently fading away,” he says. He considers himself a custodian of heritage. A former structural engineer, after retirement Pazzi relocated from Italy to Spain and joined Nomad Photo Expeditions, a company that takes clients to remote areas, like the Hela Province of Papua New Guinea, where Pazzi was welcomed to observe members of the Huli tribe, one of the largest Melanesian groups. His photo of colorfully painted tribesmen wearing wigs of their own hair shaved in their youth as a rite of passage garnered the most online votes to win this year’s Readers’ Choice award. 

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Correction, March 29, 2024: A previous version of this article misidentified the plant species featured in Cortney Armitage’s photograph; it is has been updated.

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