MANILA, Philippines - The college student who won a photography contest with an entry he lifted from someone else may be suspended by his university and face legal action by the organizers.
Mark Joseph Solis, a political science graduate and public administration student of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, was stripped of the top prize yesterday in the 2nd Calidad Humana National Essay Photography Competition initiated by the embassy of Chile.
The prize will instead go to the second placer, also a UP student – for a black and white shot of children in a low income community.
After a meeting yesterday, contest organizers rejected a suggestion of the real photographer of the winning entry – Brazil-based social worker Gregory John Smith – to award the top prize instead to his 20-year-old foundation, which assists street children in Rio de Janeiro and Manila.
“It is important to consider that this was not only a photo contest,” Chilean Ambassador Roberto Mayorga explained yesterday. “The relevant issues in the contest were the messages we asked to be submitted together with the photo, inviting for a better world, and the capability of the winner to explain, as Filipino ambassador, the meaning of the Calidad Humana Project both in the Philippines and abroad.”
In a statement, the contest organizers declared, “Part of Calidad Humana involves living with integrity and upholding the values of the Filipino people. Obviously, Mr. Solis has failed to abide by this and we are considering taking legal action against him.”
Mayorga, who conceptualized the project and its theme, “Smiles for the World,” said the majority of Filipinos “certainly have Calidad Humana.”
Solis, 22, a recipient of awards for academic excellence, leadership and debating prowess in the Philippines and other countries, has apologized profusely for lifting the winning photo from the Flickr account of Smith’s Children at Risk Foundation.
Anthony Leachon, director of UP Manila’s Information, Publication and Public Affairs and vice president of the Philippine College of Physicians, told The STAR that Solis deserved a second chance for his apology and admission of wrongdoing.
UP rules reportedly impose a one-term suspension for plagiarism for first offenders, and expulsion for a second offense.
“It’s disturbing and depressing to know of the loss of the sense of propriety and not taking the moral high ground in pursuing his goals,” Leachon said.
He noted that Solis “was remorseful in his letter of apology and accepted intellectual dishonesty as a grave sin.”
“The silver lining for Mark Joseph is that he has recognized his mistakes and has shown his desire to be accountable moving forward. UP Diliman will do due process in trying to come up with sanctions, if needed, based on the Rule Book. I believe there’s no wrong time to do the right thing and we must give him a second chance.”
Leachon declined to say what sanctions may be imposed on Solis.
Smith, for his part, thanked those who expressed their concern and support.
“Hopefully this will not be turned into a witch hunt. There is enough suffering in the world, either self-inflicted or otherwise,” Smith said in a Facebook post.
Saving his own skin
In a message sent to The STAR yesterday, Smith said, “I would like to see Solis translate his words into some solid action to benefit the children he has so irresponsibly abused by taking their image and publishing it freely as one of his own property.”
Smith said Solis could push for the transfer of the prize to the children’s foundation.
Smith also wrote to one of the judges in the photo contest, Oscar Lopez of Benpres Holdings, making the same suggestion.
Smith said Solis’ apology, relayed first to the media, seemed to be nothing more than an admission of guilt.
“This kind of apology is easy for any intelligent person to fake according to public opinion and in order to save his own skin,” Smith said. “I didn’t really pay much attention to the content other than understood it was his remorse of the facts.”
Smith added, “As in my daily work with children at risk in Brazil, I take more note of people’s actions than in their wording, so I think Solis’ apology was worth nothing more than an admittance of his ‘crime’.”
On his Facebook account, Smith received various wall posts from Filipino netizens apologizing for the incident.
“You can be sure that one man’s actions won’t change my opinion of an entire people’s ethical values. I look forward to my coming visit to Manila and to experience the hospitality that I am sure will be heartfelt during my stay there early next year,” Smith said in response to a post asking him not to change his positive opinion of Filipinos.
Smith confirmed in his message that the incident was not the first time that Solis lifted his photos to enter a competition.
“His actions speak for themselves, because this is obviously not the first time he’s done this kind of thing and it seemed not to be the last,” said Smith.
The top prize in the photo contest consists of $1,000 in cash, an all-expense-paid trip to Chile and Brazil and a high-end mobile phone from Smart Communications.
In his letter of apology, Solis told Smith, “It was a regrettable lapse on my judgment, and no words can express how sorry I am for taking your photo as mine.”
He added, “I take full responsibility for a disgraceful action and a grave moral lapse on my part. This recent turn of events has taught me to become humble, to have foresight, to be sensitive for the works of others, and ultimately, to take responsibility for my action.”
Smith lamented that the letter was first published before it reached him.
Solis had called the lifted photo “The Mettle of the Filipino Spirit” and said it depicted a boy helping his father gather seaweed in Zamboanga City.
Smith said the photo was of a Brazilian boy playing with seaweed and taken in Rio de Janeiro in 2006.