Canon Student Development Programme: meet the 2023 finalists

Discover how Canon is nurturing the documentary talent of tomorrow, through mentoring, expert guidance and the forging of invaluable industry connections.
The finalists of the 2023 Canon Student Development Programme stand outside with some of their mentors, looking up at the camera.

"The programme brought together an interesting and diverse group of photographers," says CSDP judge Marco Longari. "The more experienced have been able to share knowledge, facilitated by the mentors, and access a wealth of new stories and information. Those in need of more informed and tailored support benefitted from an expanded support group." © Jana Mai

The Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP) is a gateway into the competitive world of documentary photography, offering mentorships with industry legends, practical guidance and the chance to forge career-shaping relationships.

The 2023 selection process started with an open call for applicants from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, 100 of whom advanced to the mentoring stage, receiving guidance from professionals to help refine their portfolios. In September, the top 30 gathered in Girona, Spain, and Perpignan, France, for workshops, portfolio reviews and seminars, culminating at the Visa pour l'Image international festival of photojournalism. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity enabled the participants to meet and connect with some of the biggest names in the industry, including acclaimed photographers and Canon Ambassadors Aïda Muluneh, Brent Stirton and Paolo Pellegrin, Assistant Editor for International Photography at the New York Times, Gaia Tripoli, and Picture Editor and Head of Photography at The Guardian, Fiona Shields.

Finalist Fatma Fahmy said being invited to this exclusive workshop was a career-defining moment. "Building connections and networks is crucial in this field," she explains. "Working on your photography style and connecting with people who appreciate your work is essential for success."

The programme came to a close with the top five students invited to attend the Hamburg Portfolio Review in Germany. As part of their prize, the finalists also received up to €9,000 of Canon equipment and a €2,000 grant to support their professional journey.

We spoke with the five 2023 finalists to hear their thoughts on the programme and their advice for 2024's applicants, as well as hearing from CSDP judge, photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Marco Longari to discover what he found most compelling about each candidate's portfolio.

A black and white photograph of a man, seen from behind, balanced across the top handrails of a rickety train carriage. Other passengers can be seen holding on and looking at the man. Taken by Ahmed Qabel.

Ahmed Qabel's Cairo, Return project was created between 2020 and 2022, and inspired by his long rail journeys to university. "The words 'Cairo Return' are written on third class round-trip tickets from the capital Cairo to my home city of Ashmoun, located in the south of the Delta of Egypt," Ahmed explains. "Every person on the train has their own worlds and imaginations, gathered together by fate for a few hours at a time. Here, an old man challenges a young man to see who is stronger." © Ahmed Qabel

Photojournalist Ahmed Qabel stands at a table between two women, looking at a large selection of photographs spread out in front of them.

"Reviews were essential for me," says Ahmed. "They were my favourite part, enabling me to gain valuable insights from experienced professionals. I could also understand how people from various cultures perceive the work and how easy it is for them to grasp the story through the photos. It's vital to gauge how different cultures comprehend your narrative." © Jana Mai

Ahmed Qabel

Why did you apply to the CSDP?

"It's a valuable opportunity to review my work and learn from the professionals. Viewing your work through different perspectives is essential for growth."

How has the programme helped you?

"I learned how important it is to view my work from multiple perspectives, because the critiques I received are invaluable in helping me understand what I might be missing. As for the award, it will greatly aid in improving the quality of my content and provide me with more time to work without feeling pressured."

A headshot of photojournalist Ahmed Qabel.

Ahmed Qabel, 24

Self-taught and driven by a passion to discover both himself and the world, Ahmed doesn't like to stick to one style. Instead, the Egyptian-born and based photographer prefers trying new things based on what tells his story best, keeping his approach straightforward and authentic.


Social media: @ahmedqabel_

What advice would you give to those applying for next year's CSDP?

"Be prepared for rejection, but don't lose hope! I experienced rejection from the programme last year. Seize every chance to enhance your skills."

What Canon kit did you choose?

"I decided to go with the Canon EOS R5 as it aligns with my needs. For the lens I chose the Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM for its exceptional quality, durable materials and the added benefit of a customisable ring. This lens significantly enhances the overall shooting experience and provides the flexibility I need."

Judge's comments

Marco Longari: "Ahmed presented a solid portfolio. Right from the start he was identified as someone with huge potential. His body of work won because it was multifaceted, contemporary, engaging and showed a deep commitment to the medium and to a personal and authorial vision of photography. My advice to Ahmed is to nurture the powerful nature of his vision."

A man with a large, full sack strapped to his back rests against rocks on a snowy mountainside, in a photograph by Ebrahim Alipoor.

This photograph, part of Ebrahim Alipoor's Bullets Have No Borders project, shows a porter, or 'Koolbar', who is hired to transport illegal goods from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iranian Kurdistan. "According to statistics, 300 Koolbars die annually, 71% of whom are shot to death by border patrols," explains Ebrahim. © Ebrahim Alipoor

Photojournalist Ebrahim Alipoor leans over a table, placing out rows of photographs.

"The hardest part for me I'd say was probably pitching my portfolio to experts and talking about my photos," Ebrahim says. "I'm not a talkative person, so taking photos for me is easier than speaking." © Jana Mai

Ebrahim Alipoor

Why did you apply to the CSDP?

"I've been doing photography for many years, but I've never had a mentor or an opportunity to improve my skills, so it gave me all of that."

How has the programme helped you?

"This was the first photography programme I've ever been a part of, so every moment of it was incredibly useful. In Kurdistan, there aren't many opportunities to learn or improve your skills, but this programme gave me everything that I needed. I learned new processes that without this programme would have been impossible for me to learn. I now see my photography career in two parts: before this programme and after. In terms of my photography, I learned not to rely on my 24mm lens as much, to make layers in photos and to get closer to the subject. I'm now more confident in pitching, knowing how to get my images published and getting new assignments."

A headshot of photojournalist Ebrahim Alipoor.

Ebrahim Alipoor, 33

Based in Kurdistan, self-taught Iranian Kurd Ebrahim uses photography to highlight the challenges faced by ethnic minorities living in Iran. His work conveys a narrative about Middle Eastern social issues that he hopes will raise awareness and influence change. Since completing the programme, Ebrahim has received many publishing offers, including from The Guardian newspaper and Stern magazine.


Social media: @ebrahim_alipoor

What advice would you give to those applying for next year's CSDP?

"Ask yourself – do you want a better future and more opportunities? If the answer is 'yes', then apply!"

What Canon kit did you choose?

I tested the Canon EOS R6 Mark II on the programme and found the autofocus system, weight, processing and battery to be really amazing, so I chose that. I'm a documentary photographer so I like the zoom flexibility of the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens. It gives me so many shooting options all in one lens, so it's an amazing fit with my work."

Judge's comments

Marco Longari: "Ebrahim's entry was powerful and tragic. A powerful testimony and a powerful engagement. He won because his images are poignant, and the stories are honest, told with direct and unwavering commitment. My advice for Ebrahim is to preserve this vision, develop it and use the connections he made on the programme to broaden his perspective on photography."

An ice cream cart attached to a motorcycle is parked on the sandy beach at the edge of a lake. Holidaymakers can be seen behind playing and splashing in the dirty-looking water. Photograph by Fatma Fahmy.

Fatma Fahmy's ongoing project, The Lost Lake, explores the problems caused by increased salinity and pollution of Lake Qarun, the third largest lake in Egypt. Here, an ice cream cart is pictured next to the beach at Lake Qarun. "Vacationers come from Fayoum, Beni Suef and Giza during the summer to stroll in the lake," explains Fatma. "Despite increased pollution from multiple types of waste, untreated sewage, agricultural wastewater and industrial waste." © Fatma Fahmy

Seated in front of a laptop, Fatma Fahmy discusses her work with another woman during the Canon Student Development Program.

"Some of the lessons I've learned will have a lasting impact on my work moving forward," explains Fatma. "Including the importance of taking notes from photo editors to improve my photography and make it stronger." © Jana Mai

Fatma Fahmy

Why did you apply to the CSDP?

"I applied to the CSDP in 2020, and while I didn't win, it led to an opportunity to work with Reuters. But what I craved was mentorship. I reapplied to the programme because I firmly believe that refining your photography style and connecting with those who appreciate your work are essential for success."

What impact has the programme had?

"Mentors Aïda Muluneh and Marco Longari provided me with valuable advice on storytelling, encouraging me to cover various aspects of Egypt. Their recognition and support meant a lot to me."

A headshot of photojournalist Fatma Fahmy.

Fatma Fahmy, 32

Cairo's Fatma Fahmy, a chemical engineer turned self-taught photographer, has achieved remarkable recognition in just four years. She was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass, won a Daniele Tamagni Grant, was recognised by Italy's PhMuseum as one of Africa's best upcoming photographers, collaborated with global NGOs and worked with clients such as Reuters and CNN.

Social media: @fatmah.fahmy

What advice would you give to those applying for next year's CSDP?

"My advice is to work hard, follow your dreams, and apply not just once but multiple times until you improve your work. Don't hesitate to apply even if you don't have a good idea; mentors can help you start and improve it."

What Canon kit did you choose?

"I'm considering either the Canon EOS R6 Mark II or the EOS R5 because all my previous work was done with a cropped-frame camera. I'm eager to upgrade the quality of my work in my project and be able to shoot at night without any limitations."

Judge's comments

Marco Longari: "Fatma's application immediately resonated with the judges; her work is nuanced and informed. She won because she worked hard to build her portfolio, and this was recognised and encouraged. My advice for Fatma is to keep her head down and keep the inner engineer at bay!"

A group of people in warm hats and clothing sit on the ground resting, with hills in the background, in a photograph by Michał Siarek

In 2020 Michał Siarek was invited to Gamvik, a remote fishing village on the Norwegian coast of the Barents Sea, to create a portrait of the northernmost settlement of mainland Europe for the local museum. "I was to become a resident photographer, for 200 people of 15 nationalities," he explains. The finished project, 'Not to brag, but I'm from Gamvik', includes this shot of Saami herders enjoying a tranquil moment in the mountains during the seasonal reindeer migration. "Working in a small community brought me a tangible sense of belonging that I haven't felt before," says Michał. "I began to perceive ties between them as a sacred capital with inherent value, that once destroyed cannot be easily replaced." © Michał Siarek

Michał Siarek discusses his work with another man seated beside him at a table.

"Do not hesitate," Michał responds when asked what advice he has for anyone thinking of applying for CSDP 2024. "This is the best programme you can apply for; I cannot recommend it enough." © Jana Mai

Michał Siarek

Why did you apply to the CSDP?

"I lived under a rock for a couple years in the far north working on a story and completely lost touch with the industry. I felt the programme was an opportunity to get back into things, almost like a second start after a long sabbatical."

What impact has the programme had?

"It took me out of my comfort zone, allowing me to meet people that it wouldn't normally be possible to meet, such as Brent Stirton or Fiona Shields from The Guardian. It was an amazing opportunity to ask their opinions. On a more personal note, it fosters a conversation between peers that's sort of like a pat on the back. So, it's not only about education and pushing you within your network, but it's also just allowing you to be vulnerable and sharing things with people who you wouldn't necessarily have known how to contact."

A headshot of photojournalist Michał Siarek.

Michał Siarek, 32

With a photography degree from the Polish National Film School, Michał's interests in history and mythology shine though in his artistic endeavours, most notably in his photobook Alexander, which was nominated for a MACK First Book Award. Today Michał splits his time between Łódź in his homeland of Poland, and Gamvik in Norway.


Social media: @michal.siarek

What advice would you give to those applying for next year's CSDP?

"It's an intense, but safe space to discuss your doubts about your work. It was the most important professional experience I've had in years. I think this can single-handedly kickstart your career."

What Canon kit did you choose?

"The story I'm working on now relates to animals, so Canon's telephoto lenses are my go-to choice. Canon's RF mount options and EOS R System camera bodies have my interest."

Judge's comments

Marco Longari: "Michał is a well-rounded photographer who is talented and informed. He won because his work was articulate, polished, well thought out and well-executed. My advice to Michał is to keep exploring what's around you with the same inquisitive and curious attitude."

A dark and blurry atmospheric shot of a country road in mid-Wales, by Mohamed Hassan.

I shot this photo through the car windscreen in bad weather," says Mohamed Hassan. "The images have a different perspective to other shoots and are very atmospheric." © Mohamed Hassan

Photojournalist Mohamed Hassan sits with another man at the Canon Student Development Programme, both looking at a laptop screen.

"It really is just an amazing programme; I grew so much," Mohamed says. "I believe in myself more and have more confidence in my work. The CSDP really is a life-changing experience." © Jana Mai

Mohamed Hassan

What made you apply to the CSDP?

"I wanted to have my work evaluated by professionals in the field. I hoped to make contacts with editors, artists and curators so I could share my future projects with them, and that's exactly what happened."

What impact has the programme had?

"Anyone can possess a truly impressive body of work, but what sets it apart is the quality of editing, which is something I am continuing to improve on. That, and the judges telling me, 'Mohamed you're not a photographer, you're an artist."

What advice would you give to those applying for next year's CSDP?

"When capturing images for your application, try working in new ways and don't worry if it doesn't work out, just have another go – some of the best pictures are happy accidents."

A headshot of photojournalist Mohamed Hassan.

Mohamed Hassan, 39

Born in Egypt, now based in Wales, Mohamed has a decade of experience and two degrees in photography, a passion for which ignited under his father's professional guidance in Alexandria. Among his triumphs to date, Mohamed has exhibited widely and was a finalist in the Carte Blanche Students competition at Paris Photo.


Social media:

What Canon kit did you choose?

"I went for the Canon EOS R5 and Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens because not only is it the perfect combo for shooting commercial work, but it will help me with my personal projects too."

Judge's comments

Marco Longari: "Mohamed's images were fresh, interesting and compelling. The story of the commuters resonates universally; his approach is one of an experienced photographer. My advice for Mohamed is to leave the comfort zone of his patch."

Natalie Denton

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