The winners of the ninth annual iPhone Photography Awards—an international photography contest that fosters iPhone and mobile photography—have been announced, with Siyuan Niu of Xinjiang, China, coming on top.
“I couldn’t believe I got the prize,” Niu tells TIME. “If I had to describe the feeling, I could only say that it feels like when Andy from The Shawshank Redemption finally reached out the sewers and hug the freedom in the lightstorm; it’s like when Jack won the ticket to the Titanic; or when young Simba was born and lifted by the shaman baboon, Rafiki.”
Selected from thousands of entries submitted by iPhone photographers from 139 countries around the world, the top four winners are joined by dozens more who received First, Second and Third prizes in 19 different categories — from travel to animals to portraits. “It’s amazing to see what people capture and how connected they are to those moments, no matter what country in the world they are in,” says the awards’ founder Kenan Aktulun. “It feels like a warm invitation from someone sharing a slice of their life experience.”
Niu won the Grand Prize for his image of a 70-year-old Khalkha with his golden eagle in the Tianshan Mountains in the south of Xinjiang, China. Titled Man and the Eagle, the image captures a tough man with a weather-beaten face who shares a tender companionship with his wild, trained bird.
Based in the Xinjiang Province, Niu was photographing the snowy landscape when the man came towards him on horse with the eagle on his right arm. “The eagle must have noticed me as it started flapping its wings and screeching, very agitated and vigilant,” Niu tells TIME. “The old man used his hand and his voice to calm it down. They were touching face-to-face. With my iPhone in hand, I took the shot.”
Decidedly moving beyond his systematic training in digital cameras, Niu says he’s since grown into the habit of shooting with his iPhone 5s, which he uses to show the multivariate beauties of his home country, highlighting the harmony between humans and nature. “Photography today could never have been more simple,” he says. “My iPhone is always with me anytime in my pocket. With just one touch, I can immediately record a moment in front of me. I can come up with the footage even when I didn’t look at the screen or settings.”
Niu shot with no other lenses or gadgets, and post-processed on Snapseed after applying a VSCO filter.
Second Prize went to graphic designer Kuleta for his Modern Cathedrals, an impressionistic look at a longstanding architectural structure. But the image carries with it as much mystery as its amorphous aesthetic suggests. “I really don’t know what this image actually is,” Kuleta tells TIME. “I just know to my surprise that I won First Place.”
Kuleta, who was always more into nature and minimalistic long exposure landscape photography, recently started experimenting with architectural photography. He took to the streets of Poland and France with his iPhone 5, interested in merging long exposure photography with an impressionistic aesthetic. “I simply fell in love with the painterly effect that came out of it,” he says. “There is something grandiose and surreal about architecture itself, surreal because probably I will never understand how people are able to create these buildings, skyscrapers, how they even build them.”
His images are created using long exposure apps like AvgCamPro and AvgNiteCam, and then editing in Snapseed and VSCO for final touches.
Painter-turned-photographer Robertis from Carlsbad, Calif., was awarded Third Place for She Bends with the Wind. The image, an iPhone 6 shot of a woman swaying like an extension of the long Cape Cod grass around her with a red umbrella, falls in line with Robertis’ love of the fanciful. “My work attempts to capture images that invoke magical places found only in the subconscious of those who dare to peek behind the curtain of day-to-day life,” she says. The image was edited in Snapseed and Photoshop Express.
With Wonderland, a quirky father-and-son candid, Florida based photographer Borlenghi won Third Place. A conceptual photographer living and working in Miami, Borlenghi took this image as part of a series for #WHPwonderland, a weekend project organized by Instagram one weekend before Christmas 2015. “I went on a little adventure with my five-year-old son to the beach at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne with reindeer masks,” Borlenghi says. “It was mid-December, windy and colder than we expected. There was not a soul on the beach, and I am pretty sure the people we walked by on the way there thought we were crazy, but we kept on going.”
The image, shot on the iPhone 6s on a tripod, with the Apple Watch as a shutter, is one of many Borlenghi has shot for her Instagram account in the spirit of practice makes perfect. “I go for it whenever possible, even when it doesn’t work,” she says. “It’s always worth the try.”
With a pending announcement in September, the three winners look forward to Apple’s next iPhone model: Niu hopes it will offer exposure control. Robertis would prefer a dual-lens option and potential features that would come with that—like stereo 3D, post-shooting focusing, auto-object masking, etc. “It will be an amazing push for the entire photographic industry, not just for mobile,” he says.
Founded the same year the iPhone was launched, in 2007, the IPPAwards pay tribute to the stunning imagery that can be captured with even the smallest of cameras, reminding us that the person behind the lens plays a significant part in the making of a picture.
“Having an iPhone means anyone can take a picture, but taking a picture doesn’t make a person a photographer, Borlenghi says. Niu agrees. “The iPhone is like a pen in our hands. Good or bad, the pen itself will never write poems, but the poets will.”