For the Lunar New Year celebrations in 2021, held while the Covid-19 pandemic raged on, the Malaysian state of Selangor had restricted travel to a ten-kilometer radius. Video chats would have to replace the typical in-person celebrations for thousands of families, including Sinsee Ho’s.

“I took this photo on the third day of the new year,” she writes via e-mail. “I had my husband wear a red shirt and Chinese traditional ponytail hat to depict the festive mood of Lunar New Year, while I portrayed a more casual mood, as though I just woke up from bed. I used a tripod and 10 second self-timer to take the shot.

“I borrow ideas from street photography, a genre that I love, to show similarity and contrast within one image. Here, the similarity is both persons using technology to communicate, facing the same direction. The contrast is that one is dressed up (at least in the top part of his wardrobe, for video chat purposes!), while the other is the opposite.”

Ho’s dual portrait took the grand prize in Smithsonian magazine’s 19th annual photo contest, which received more than 47,000 photographs captured in more than 180 countries. The magazine also recognizes six other winners in the categories of People, Travel, American Experience, Natural World, Altered Images and Mobile. More than 13,000 votes were cast in our Readers’ Choice competition, the winner is also included below.

The 20th annual contest will open for submissions in September.

Winner: Grand Prize

Photograph of two people celebrating Lunar New Year on a phone and a computer
Sinsee Ho
Lockdown but Not Disconnected
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
February 2021

Winner: People

Northern white rhino resting with her caretaker
Matjaz Krivic
Najin Resting With Her Caretaker
Nanyuki, Kenya
April 2021

Environmental photographer Matjaz Krivic accompanied a pair of journalist friends to Kenya last year in part to cover a story about former special forces soldiers training wilderness rangers on how to foil poachers. This illegal hunting is one of the factors that has driven northern white rhinos like Najin, pictured here, to near extinction. The trip also included a visit to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Najin’s home, to learn how scientists are attempting to rescue the species from the brink. The last known male northern white rhino died in 2018, though its sperm was preserved for artificial breeding efforts that have so far yielded inconclusive results.

Krivic says that Najin and her daughter Fatu both adore their caretaker Zachary Mutai, pictured here. Najin is friendly to most humans; Fatu is far pricklier. Krivic captured this photo of Najin and Mutai at midday, when the exertions of six hours in the grazing area under the sun had taken their toll. Most days by that time, Najin and Fatu drink some water and then just collapse,” Krivic says. The two are the last remaining northern white rhinos in the world.

Six months after this photo was taken Najin’s caretakers decided to stop harvesting the 32-year-old rhino’s eggs, taking into account her age and other risk factors.

Winner: Natural World

Ants and aphids
Prathamesh Ghadekar
The Ants and the Aphids
November 2021

Prathamesh Ghadekar photographs weddings and other events as a career, but it’s the relationships among creatures some people prefer not to think about that truly excite him.

“My prime interest is in microfauna,” he says. “Reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, insects. I don’t photograph birds and mammals much.” His yen for oft-misunderstood animals developed when he would be called to remove snakes who’d found their way into his neighbors’ homes. From there, he became curious about other reptiles, then arachnids and scorpions. “Anything that was really small and neglected,” he says. He’s come up with his own classification for these rough beasts: cryptic species.

His winning photograph documents a symbiotic relationship on a bamboo stem, between the ants who defend the aphids from predators, and the aphids who secrete a sugary liquid to feed the ants. He’d attempted to document this relationship before, but this entry represents his second attempt, with the advantages of a better camera and an assistant operating a flash. Patience was also required to capture a scene that would make the creatures’ interdependency clear. “That to me is really important: Showcasing neglected behavior in perfect light and good composition,” he explains. “Then you can make people aware of these cryptic things that keep happening in nature. It’s not very easy for people to see these relationships.”

Winner: Travel

Office building in Tokyo, Japan
Chen-Tung Tai
Tokyo, Japan
October 2021

A friend of the photographer recommended a visit to this stunningly colorful office building on Odaiba, an artificial island in Japan’s Tokyo Bay. Odaibia was built in the 19th century as a defense against naval attacks on Tokyo proper, but is now a shopping and entertainment destination. The building is private, but Tai gained entry via an acquaintance working there. Upon stepping out of the elevator into the atrium, “My vision was overwhelmed by thousands of colors,” Tai writes. “I couldn’t wait to photograph as many angles as possible, including vertical and horizontal compositions,” though his time on-site was limited. “This place is definitely one of the most spectacular photography spots I have ever seen worldwide.”

Winner: American Experience

Navajo dancer in Sedona, Arizona
Craig Lefebvre
Indigenous Swirling Colors
Sedona, Arizona
April 2018

Translating a dynamic form like dance into a static one like still photography requires more than just skill and good equipment. It takes planning. “Part of the trick was figuring out where they would be moving around,” says photographer Craig Lefebvre, who captured this photo the first time he saw the Indigenous Enterprise dance troupe perform at Tlaquepaque village in Sedona, Arizona—an arts and shopping destination dotted with trees and courtyards. He arrived an hour in advance of the announced performance to take test photos and try to determine how the interplay of columns and wandering tourists would influence what came through his lens. “I was trying to work with the light and shadows that were dancing around that courtyard the entire time,” he says. He estimates he was 25 to 30 feet away from Navajo dancer Kenneth Shirley when he snapped the shot.

Shirley’s troupe, Indigenous Enterprise, was formed in 2015, reports the New York Times, and merges Native styles with contemporary hip-hop influences. In Lefebvre’s photograph, Shirley is performing the Fancy Dance, an athletic, high-tempo style customarily performed in colorful feathers.

Winner: Mobile

Man putting on bead garland with seagulls in background
Sunil Choudhary
Fill the Frame
Delhi, India
November 2019

Yamuna Ghat provides pedestrian access to the sacred Yamuna River just opposite an island of undeveloped marsh. It’s a popular site for reflection, and for birdwatching. Sunil Choudhary goes there to spot the Siberian seagulls who can be found resting there between November and February.

“I'm not a regular visitor at Yamuna Ghat but whenever I visit Delhi during winters I start my day there,” Choudhary writes. “This man came out from a holy dip and the water droplets on his body [beckoned me] close to him. I waited there for a moment and suddenly he put on his beads garland, and when both his hands were in the right place I got a movement of seagulls to fill my frame. Tiny water droplets, the movement of birds, and position of hands along with the beads made this frame to me.”

Winner: Altered Image

Dancers performing at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Garry Platt
“Floating Flowers” Performed by B. Dance
Edinburgh, Scotland
August 2019

The vibrant energy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts festival, has been on hiatus since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Canceled in 2020 and heavily modified in 2021, the beloved festival was where photographer Garry Platt captured this stunning photo. Platt hails from Garboshire in northwest England—”home to millions of landscape photographers,” he says—but has been documenting dance performances at the festival since 2004. He had seen this performance, “Floating Flowers,” several times before he was ready to photograph it.

“The dancer in the middle held that pose for a second while the other dancers were moving. My shutter speed was very slow; half a second or something like that, so it got that effect where the central dancer is perfectly still and the rest are in this blurred movement.” It’s a technique he has mastered through trial and error.

“Dancers don’t often like it,” he laughs. “They prefer it when everyone is perfectly sharp and in focus. But to communicate movement, I often find that motion blur is much more effective than a fast shutter speed that would give you a very sharp shot.” The blur was achieved organically, Platt says, and he digitally removed equipment left behind by a prior dance troupe so that only the dancers would be in the frame.

Winner: Readers' Choice

Father and son in a dairy barn
Shayna Stevens
Teach Me, Dad
Barre, Massachusetts
February 2019

Shayna Stevens’ family has operated a Massachusetts dairy farm since 1938. It currently numbers 200 cattle, and the family operates a micro-brewery, too. This image was captured on a “family milking night” three years ago, Stevens writes, when Harvest, the youngest of her three children with her husband Will (pictured), was 2 years old. The curious boy — “Dad’s little shadow,” in Stevens’ words — wanted to know what was in the bucket.

“My camera is never too far away,” Stevens writes. “It’s so important to me that the kids have photos of these memories when they’re older.”

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