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The magic of youth

Two young up-and-coming Auckland photographers prove that they’re ready to take on the world, securing top spots at this year’s Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition with fresh creativity, confident hustle, and digital prowess

15 April 2020

Keeley Watson, winning image, Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition

Two young up-and-coming Auckland photographers prove that they’re ready to take on the world, securing top spots at this year’s Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition with fresh creativity, confident hustle, and digital prowess

While the older generation of photographer debates the virtues and vices of social media, a digitally savvy new breed of artist has emerged to seize every opportunity that our connected world now offers. Young photographers are using platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook to showcase work, develop networks of like-minded creatives, and circumvent the conventional channels to pull in new clients. 

A competition targeting this new generation of photographers, open to Australia’s and Aotearoa’s digital natives, recently saw two young Kiwi photographers shortlisted for the top spot. In the Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition, photographers between the ages of 11 and 18 years old are tasked with submitting images in a bid to land one of two spots in the final head-to-head shoot-out in Sydney.

A record number of entries was submitted this year, with the competition appealing to the younger demographic by using Instagram hashtags as an entry device. This also made it easy for young photographers around the world to see each other’s work and make new connections, explains the competition’s judge, travel photographer Tyson Mayr.

“What blew me away, though, was just how creative some of these legends are. It’s exciting to see, because that right there is the future of photography and content as we know it,” he says.

Out of over 2500 entrants, the two finalist spots went to 17-year-old Keeley Watson and 18-year-old Luke Rooney, both of Auckland. 

Keeley, no stranger to photography competitions, having entered her first at 11 years old, saw the competition advertised on social media and decided to exercise her creativity around the given theme, Gritty, via a photo of her grandmother in a pool.


Luke Rooney, Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition image submitted via Instagram


“I took the photo through a pool noodle, because it created an interesting frame, and emphasis on the focal point,” Keeley explains. “I borrowed a camera, as I did not have my own at the time.”

The theme also jumped out to Luke, whose photography is predominantly focused on urban scenes and cityscapes.

“I submitted photos ranging from derelict buildings to underground tunnels and a bit of street photography in between,” he says. “I felt that every city has a side that it never wants shown to the public, the ‘gritty’ side, so I wanted to try and expose this in my photos for people to see.”

The judge says it was both photographers’ attention to lighting and composition that made their images stand out from the rest, earning them the finalist spots.

“They both had stories within their images and my mind definitely wandered while viewing them,” Tyson says. “I love an image that makes me feel something, or continues the story I can see within my own head.” 

Finalists selected, the competition moved to stage two — flying the contestants to Sydney for an on-the-ground photo challenge. The young artists were tasked with heading out onto the early morning city streets, each equipped with a Sony α6300, with two hours to explore, shoot, and edit before submitting one final shot for the top spot.

“My job as a travel-content creator often requires me to work under very similar conditions — limited time; exploring a new location; working with the conditions provided,” explains judge Tyson. “I was blown away with the images that came back to me.”

In addition to a tight timeframe and unfamiliar locale, the competitors had extra obstacles to contend with on this particular day; not only was the sunrise marred by heavy cloud coverage, but traffic was also unusually dense, as the challenge fell on Anzac Day. 

Keeley Watson, Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition image submitted via Instagram

Keeley’s plan of attack was to catch a taxi to Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the edge of Australia’s oldest public parkland area, Hyde Park. She had intended to take advantage of the early morning light on the historic structure but kept moving to make the most of the allotted time.

“I ended up in an underground expressway, where I came across the location of my final image,” she says. “I then wandered back through Sydney’s streets and took photos of people, reflections, and the light changing on the city.”

For his part, Luke spent the previous night researching, so he had a few locations up his sleeve once the clock started. In the end, he decided to play with the gloomy weather that he’d been lumped with: his camera centimetres above the water, Luke captured the reflective surface of Sydney Harbour, with the bridge and city fading into the background. 

“The Sydney reflection photo was submitted, because, on that morning, the whole country was in reflection due to Anzac Day,” he explains. “I also incorporated my own style into the final photo, which, in the end, I was very happy with.”

Tyson found Luke’s image powerful and technically faultless, but it was Keeley’s creative approach that ultimately won him over. Shot on an underground pedestrian expressway beneath Hyde Park, the photographer asked a passing stranger if she would jump towards the tunnel’s roof as she walked the travelator.


Keeley Watson, image shot on final Sony Alpha Awards Youth Competition challenge


“When I edited the photo, I decided to flip the image to make it look like she was falling, but a lot of people thought she was doing a handstand,” says Keeley. “I chose this photo because it created intrigue and confusion, which is something that I like to do with my images.”

The judge felt those effects keenly, praising the image’s elements of surprise — eschewing well-known landmarks and the expected sunrise shot — as well as its depth and perspective. Keeley’s competitor was also suitable impressed with her winning photo. “I liked how Keeley switched up the perspective of the photo, which made the viewer pause and think about what was going on in the picture,” comments Luke. “I love symmetry as well, and her perception of symmetry in the photo with the leading lines and the subject as well were perfect.”

Keeley, also dabbling in modelling and now happily learning photography as an elective in her 12th year at high school, now expects photography to be a continuous passion in her life, hoping to continue in a creative field once she graduates. Not only has the young photographer, who had to borrow a camera to enter the competition, been awarded $2K’ worth of Sony gear, but the win has also redoubled her faith in herself: “I often questioned my photography, skills and ideas, and this competition gave me a sense of confidence. After coming home from the competition, all I wanted to do was take more photos!”


Luke Rooney, image shot on final Youth Competition challenge

Luke Rooney, image shot on final Youth Competition challenge