Winning photo of 'Zambo boy' taken from Flickr

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 22 2013 08:27 PM | Updated as of Sep 23 2013 06:02 PM

MANILA – (UPDATED) A photo of a smiling Zamboanga boy that won the top prize in a contest sponsored by the Embassy of Chile has become the subject of controversy on social media on Sunday after someone else claimed to have taken the picture.

On Friday, the Philippine Star published an article, “Zambo boy is Phl smiling icon,” about the winning photograph of a young boy gathering seaweed in Zamboanga City which won the top prize in the “Smiles for the World” contest.

According to the article, which was taken down on Sunday afternoon, Mark Joseph Solis, “a 22-year-old student of the University of the Philippines and an amateur photographer, bested 30 pre-qualified contestants selected from about 500 entries from around the country in the 2nd Calidad Humana National Essay Photography Competition hosted by the Chilean embassy on the occasion of Chile’s 203rd year of independence.”

The article also said the photo was taken in 2012 after the boy’s house “was badly damaged by Typhoon Lawin.”

Solis won $1,000 and a round-trip ticket to Brazil and Chile with accommodations for the photo.

“The Filipino spirit is waterproof,” Solis was quoted by the article. “I thought about several values that we have: social resiliency, guarded optimism, people feeling happy. Filipinos, even if things get bad, even if we are poor, as long as we are happy, we are OK. That’s Filipino culture. It’s something that’s woven into the socio-cultural fabric of the nation.”

But on late Saturday, Gregory John Smith posted on his Facebook page that the photo was his.

His Facebook page lists him as the founder and “social entrepreneur” at Children At Risk Foundation and that he lives in Brazil.

“WOW! There is really no limit to people's abuse of others in this world. This is one of my photographs that just won first prize in a contest that I never entered,” Smith wrote.

“Well, I could certainly make good use of that prize money and the travel prize too, as I plan a trip to the Philippines at the beginning of next year with two of my Jovens Guerreiros - Young Warriors Brazil to visit Young warriors programme in the Philippines. I wonder what their Jury will say now?”

A link was provided to the Flickr account of Children At Risk Foundation, showing the exact photo in a series of pictures with the title “Or maybe Neptune’s son with Amphitrite, Triton?”

“No, actually it’s a very happy Elias from the Morro de Macaco shanty, where CARF has started a new community base for the many underprivileged children there. Elias and his three brothers are some of the most needy kids and amongst the lucky ones to get a taste of the sea this summer, thanks to Marília’s campaign initiative on Flickr and the support we are receiving from its members,” the caption said of the smiling boy.

Morro de Macaco is a seaside town in Brazil and the Flickr page said the photo was taken on January 8, 2006.

Netizens also found out that Solis has submitted the photo in question to another contest, the Water and Life: 2013 ICIMOD Digital Photo Contest, although this time the subject was described as a kid who “helps his father harvest seaweed in Ramanathapuram district, India.”

Netizens were outraged by Solis's actions.

“I was disgusted when I first heard about the news, especially since the accused was a fellow Filipino and an alumnus of the university I am attending. These kind of crime should be brought to light and the perpetrator dealt with the full extent of the law to avoid anything like it from happening again. I am ashamed for what he's done and I guess it's safe to say that we all (Filipinos) are. I am so sorry sir,” Paul Miranda commented on Smith’s post.

Later on Sunday, Solis owned up to the mistake when he sent to Smith a letter of apology, which he allowed ABS-CBNnews.com to publish.

"I am writing to you to express my deep remorse and sincerest apologies for claiming your photo as mine. As the rightful owner of the photo, you deserve my initial thoughts and statement about this," Solis wrote in the letter.

Solis said the photo "was one of the most heartwarming photos I have ever seen, and I could only wish that I had the ability to capture such moments as well as you did."

He even said he kept the photo as wallpaper in his computer to inspire him as an amateur photographer.

"Unfortunately, I was driven by my youth, lack of experience, and the inability to see the repercussions of my actions. The sheer amount of the prize, the stiff competition, and the unique opportunity to be abroad blinded me from undertaking what is supposed to be an honest and a rightful conduct. It was a regrettable lapse on my judgment, and no words can express how sorry I am for taking your photo as mine," he said.

Solis said he is "now in close contact with the organizers, conveyed my apologies, and sought their opinion on the matter and how to proceed from here."

"I am surrendering everything that has been given to me in this competition, actually and virtually, and 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," he said.