The 2023 Head On Student Awards are now open for entries. Whether you or the student in your life live and breathe photography or just love playing with iPhone filters, the Head On Student Awards is an unmatched opportunity for students to put their art out into the world, be included in a world-class photography festival, be exhibited in a professional photography exhibition at Bondi Beach, and have a chance to win from a suite of prizes.

So, in preparation to welcome a whole new cohort of talented young photographers and to help you feel inspired, we wanted to look back at the Head On Student Awards’ past winners, discuss their work and why it’s amazing.

Leila Middleton

Leila Middleton is our current reigning Head On Student Awards winner. Leila is a committed photography enthusiast, and her powerful self-portrait entitled Me explores the intersection between photography and self-image/self-esteem. As she writes;

“I have never taken a picture of myself. Despite years of obsession with photography, I have always wanted to be behind the camera, not in front of it. After I took this photo, I wanted to edit my freckles, my eyebrows, my chin – everything I saw in myself that I disliked. I think that learning to like how I look is important, especially as a teenager. That’s why I left the photo unedited; I wanted it to be me.”

This raw and stripped-back exploration of self-image is a beautifully brave endeavour from a photographer who is well on their journey to discovering who they are, and who they may become.

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Leila Middleton

Chege Mbuthi

Chege Mbuthi’s is a young photographer and a fearless experimenter. As creatives, we often feel we need to justify our creations, but there is something very refreshing about Chege’s image By the front door, which they admit is an aesthetic experiment.

“By the front door is an image I captured during the first lockdown of 2021. As I found myself with more spare time, I began to experiment further with my portrait photography. As the name states, I took the shot at the front of my home, which has beautiful soft light filtered through one window, which fell upon my silhouette. The simplicity of the image, combined with the minimal colour, created an aesthetically pleasing image.”

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Chege Mbuthi

Joel Parkinson

Joel’s image captures something that many older photographers have attempted to capture in retrospect – but nothing beats getting the story straight from the source. Joel manages to capture something we all experience, but don’t really know how to put into words, though Joel does an excellent job on that front too.

“I have lived a life of certitude and ease; whose rhythms and indulgences were equally predictable and enjoyable. Yet, upon the approach of adulthood, I have inhabited an unstable terrain between childhood and adulthood. To me, this portrait illustrates the last vestiges of my innocence and the ever-growing maturity and individuality before the arrival of adulthood. Perhaps that is what adulthood means: a farewell to the familiar and a welcoming of the unknown.”

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Joel Parkinson

Aimee Sluga

Aimee Sluga is a strikingly talented photographer who has been on an upward trajectory since her win. Aimee went on to take out the top prize at the Silk Road Youth International Photography Competition at the Beijing Photo Festival with the same image.

Last year we caught up with Aimee and she let us know that “Since being in Head On I have been practising photography in my spare time whilst working part-time to save up. This year I am travelling overseas and would like to document my travels, before moving to Melbourne next year to study photography full time.” – Well done, Aimee!

Her image The last goodbye is a bittersweet image of the way many of us first experience death, saying goodbye to a grandparent. Aimee manages to tackle this challenging topic with grace and understanding exemplified by photographers three-times her age.

“My grandma was brought into hospital with severe pressure sores, dementia, pneumonia and weighing only 45 kg. She is completely reliant on nurses and no longer knows who I am. Although she was smiling, you could tell it she was in pain and it wasn’t a genuine smile, as though she was just copying my smile. I was shocked to see her this way and wanted to capture the sadness in a photo before she passed away.”

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Aimee Sluga

Hi Yin Chan

Our 2018 winner, Hi Yin Chan, used photography to capture something often overlooked… happiness. We often mistakenly conflate serious topics with serious photography. But the beauty of photography is how it can capture moments, whether these be moments of sadness, joy, pain, confusion, fear or the absence of all these things.

“Hiking has always been a way for me to escape. It is both scary and exciting when I think of my future. But at the end of the day, all I want for my future is FREEDOM.”

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Hi Yin Chan

Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith won with this beautiful image entitled Animated, which played with and manipulated unique qualities of the photographic medium.

“In ‘Animated’, I asked my best friend to play some music and dance to her heart’s content. The slow shutter speed caused her sequinned top to resemble sparks flying around her, representing energy and liveliness.”

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Sophie Smith

Isabelle Sijan

Isabelle Sijan expertly communicated an entire narrative within their seemingly simple portrait. She plays with ideas of subject and sitter, and the seen and the not seen, to create a compelling visual analogy of the unknown journey of growing-up.

“Girl Sees All depicts the average teenage girl looking at life’s obstacles. This is represented via the snow-caps of New Zealand’s Mount Cook, which can be seen as a double exposure in the subject’s eyes. While the mountain may seem out of place, especially considering the somewhat empty background, it acts as a representation of the obstacles in one’s life – whether a physical challenge or mental – and thus is not equally reflected in the setting behind the girl.”

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Isabelle Sijan

We can’t wait to see what this year’s students will show us!

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 are open now. $80,000 prize pool including finalists exhibition.

Image detail: Gary Ramage