National Geographic has long been associated with inspiring photography that tells us something about the world we live in. The grand prize-winning image of this year’s photo contest does just that. It captures a small moment in time that speaks to a much larger moment in history. Says the winning photographer, Brian Yen, “With the advent of mobile communication … a profound change in our civilization” has taken place, and he feels “a bit guilty, more and more, that I’m just like that lady in the middle of the train [who is] lost in her own world.”

Photographers from over 150 countries submitted 9,289 photos that fell into three categories: people, places, and nature. This year’s category winners all had one thing in common: They tell a story. Whether they show a migrating wildebeest taking a dramatic plunge or a thermal spa bathed in blue light, these images say something. They are layered and nuanced and invite the viewer to think.

Letting someone know they just won $10,000 and a trip to Nat Geo headquarters to participate in an exclusive photography seminar is always special. But this year was especially fun because our winner, Brian Yen of Hong Kong, has been a member of our Your Shot photo community almost since it began. We asked Yen to tell us the story behind his winning image, “A Node Glows in the Dark,” and share some insights into his photography.

MONICA CORCORAN: Tell us about the winning photo.

BRIAN YEN: The picture was taken inside a train ride at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. The train ride only lasts about five minutes; during the ride, the lights dim, and the overhead monitors display various undersea animations.

It was at the end of a long father-daughter day of fun at the park. It was very hot and humid. When the train’s door opened with a rush of cold air, everyone piled in as tightly as possible. I spotted this woman using her smartphone while in line, and she continued to use it throughout the ride. But it was when the lights dimmed that she really stood out—no one else was using their device. I’ve long made observations about how people’s social behavior has changed with the advent of mobile communication. I’ve taken many other images of people finger-skating on their phones. So in the back of my mind, I’ve been hunting for visuals to express this profound change in our civilization.

I feel a certain contradiction when I look at the picture. On the one hand, I feel the liberating gift of technology. On the other hand, I feel people don’t even try to be neighborly anymore, because they don’t have to. The picture is also a reflective one. I also feel a bit guilty, more and more, that I’m just like that lady in the middle of the train, lost in her own world.

MONICA: You’ve been a member of Your Shot since 2008. Why?

BRIAN: I’ve been a National Geographic fan pretty much all my life, so when the Your Shot images started to appear in the magazine, I immediately signed up online. I joined Your Shot to see what other people thought of my photos. Through their comments I hope to find ways to improve my work. Also, what separates Your Shot from other photo-sharing sites such as Flickr is that I get professional editor’s comments from time to time, and that’s very insightful.

I may appear rather antisocial on Your Shot. I rarely comment on other images and have no favorites on my page. I find that people often use comments and favorites to drive traffic to their own pages. So in order for me to assess the merit of my images in the eyes of my peers, I try to eliminate courtesy favorites and comments. I have another, anonymous Your Shot account that I use to leave comments and collect favorites. Of course, Your Shot does feel more like a close community rather than a huge anonymous photo dump site.

Lastly, I can’t deny that the fact that Your Shot offers me an opportunity to have my pictures published on National Geographic, and that’s a strong draw.

BRIAN: Photography to me is like going on an archaeological dig: It offers me a tool to interpret reality by dusting away the uninteresting bits to reveal the gem underneath. It’s an exciting, creative, and exploratory process. When I frame space and time through the viewfinder, it’s like taking a mini-adventure in a parallel universe. But the ultimate reason is very simple: It makes me happy, creation brings me satisfaction. When I don’t [create], it feels suffocating. 

I don’t have a particular preference in genre. I treat all photos equally. I never saw a reason to concentrate only on a particular genre or style. Everything around us, [during] every second of the day, is a fresh source for interpretation. So if I’m in the woods, I may shoot some landscape; if I’m in a subway, I’ll shoot the people around me; if I’m in a stinky alley with a dying cockroach, heck, I’ll shoot that too. The only constraint is that it be new and fresh (I mean the interpretation, not the cockroach).

What I share on Your Shot is more rooted in reality, biased toward editorial images, nothing too conceptual.

MONICA: Do you shoot every day?

BRIAN: At the moment, I’m a stay-at-home dad. I have a degree in physics, so I worked primarily in technology in the past. I typically only get a couple of days each month to shoot, but I carry a compact camera with me almost all the time, so if there’s something interesting I won’t miss the opportunity. A few times a month, I just take a few hours to ride the tram or walk the street in a new area to dig for fresh perspectives. You’ll notice that many of my shots are at night; that’s when I have the time, after my daughter falls asleep. Since I get very little time to shoot, when I do shoot, I shoot a lot. Even for a couple of hours walk around town, I can easily net well over a thousand images.

In short, I find some cracks in my daily schedule to squeeze in some shooting if possible. I’m not picky with what I shoot, and when I do get to shoot, I go crazy with the trigger.

View more winning images here. This year’s judges were National Geographic photographers John Stanmeyer and Erika Larsen, and Keith Jenkins, our General Manager of Digital.

Follow Monica Corcoran on Twitter and Instagram.

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