On Ryan Schembri and the AIPP

April 23, 2021

Former AIPP member and active volunteer Hilary Wardaugh shares some thoughts on how the Institute handled the fallout regarding the alleged malpractice of one of its most famous but now former members, Ryan Schembri …

It’s not often that one of the golden boys of professional wedding photography in Australia gets negative press. According to Sydney Morning Herald There are up to 30 Wedding Couples and Business Associates who are thousands of dollars out of pocket by former AIPP Accredited Professional Photographer Ryan Schembri.

Ryan Schembri was awarded the title of Honorary Life Member in 2014.

We’ve heard from rogue wedding photographers in the media when it comes to lesser-known photographers and non-members of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP). But maybe never one with such a profile, and so highly rewarded and celebrated by the AIPP.

Schembri was part of the AIPP “in the crowd”. He was one of a select group of photographers idolized by many members of the Australian and global photography community. He volunteered on the AIPP Awards Committee for over a decade and served as the jury chair of the AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPA) for a few years – from 2011 until Mark Zed and Melinda Comerford were awarded the role in 2013.

The responsibility of the jury chairman is to determine whether all nominations submitted are eligible and met the terms and conditions. Now knowing that NSW Fair Trading has received 18 complaints against the AIPP’s former AIPP jury chairman, a highly prestigious and privileged position that demands ethics and trust, doesn’t say much to AIPP. Or for the team that prepared and installed him in this role. When Zed and Comerford retired from the role of jury chairman, they left a full management system in place – something that was missing when they took over the role of Schembri. Setting up even a basic management system to coordinate the jury for such a prestigious photo competition is a minimum. Surely his absence during Schembri’s tenure deserved to be questioned by the council?

As indicated in the statutes and by-laws of the AIPP, all committees are required to produce a mandate for submission to the board. Schembri’s allegedly unscrupulous business behavior dates back at least six years (although online research of “ Ryan Schembri complaints ” reveals a problem from 2008), so one would assume that there is documented evidence submitted to the Compliance Committee, and that the information should have been sent to the Board.

In 2014, Schembri was awarded the title of Honorary Life Member of the AIPP by the Honors Committee for his service to the AIPP and the Awards Committee. The AIPP Honors and Ethics Committee and Compliance Committees contain colleagues and mentors close to Schembri. The majority of them are men and have held these positions for over 20 years. The lack of diversity within these committees has long been a major problem. With this lack of diversity and within the confines of a tight-knit and secretive community, clarity of purpose and judgment can become obscured.

But I digress: Schembri recently posted on social media that he is not perfect. In fact, it is far from it! His message comes across as somewhat selfish and unnecessary. It’s not an apology and he barely says he’s sorry. What he should have done was apologize and provide information and deadlines on how he would resolve the issues in question. This article is about “Ryan Schembri”, and he even used a portrait of himself to illustrate it. Most of its paragraphs begin with “I” or “my”. The negative comments have been removed. When you read the comments on his post, you read posts like “It’ll be fine, mate!”, “Sorry you’re going through this …”

Seriously? This photographer would have caused grief to many people and yet “is he a good guy?”.

When top photographer Lisa Saad was exposed for discrepancies in her award-winning images, the online abuse and intimidation against her was relentless, hateful and vitriolic.

Why the difference? Is it because women are easy prey and Saad was not a golden boy?

Online abuse and trolling of women is much greater than it is for men. Protecting mental health is paramount, unless you are distributing abuse to women. The two problems are separate and have their own problems. However, Schembri’s alleged behavior has a far greater impact than cheating in a photo contest. There are so many people affected personally, emotionally and financially.

The AIPP made a very public announcement about the cancellation of Saad’s membership and the cancellation of his rewards. Not making a similar public statement about Schembri’s behavior speaks volumes about the lack of equality at the AIPP. His connections are global and he is also inextricably linked to the AIPP brand with all of its awards and accolades. His membership in the AIPP was canceled but his association tarnished the AIPP brand.

For the AIPP to survive this problem intact, it needs proactive rhetoric and behavior that exemplifies equality and fairness for all parties involved!

My questions to the AIPP are therefore:

  • Is Schembri still able to promote the fact that he has won many top AIPP awards?
  • Has his honorary life membership been revoked?
  • Were the AIPP Honors / Ethics Committee and Compliance Committee aware of Schembri’s alleged business practices over six years? If so, why were they unsuccessful in helping him and his clients and business associates reach a resolution?
  • The AIPP made a public statement regarding Saad and distanced itself from her. Why did the AIPP not make a similar statement regarding Schembri?
  • Can we be confident that the AIPP has systems, policies and protocols in place to address issues like this when they arise?

Schembri must deliver the goods, services and money he has promised to his clients and associates. Expelling him from the AIPP does not help those who have differences with him, but simply allows the Institute to no longer face the problems it has created. It remains to be seen whether the AIPP can self-reflect on how to ensure that this does not happen again. Diversity in the ranks should mean diversity in leadership. As long as parity is not reached between all the committees of the AIPP and the council, nothing will change.

– Hilary Wardhaugh

Hilary Wardaugh. Photo Tracy Lee

Hilary Wardhaugh is a professional photographer based in Canberra and was a member of AIPP between 1997 and 2019. At AIPP, Wardaugh spent two decades on the ACT Board, serving as ACT President and representing policy and planning; was co-opted into the National Council between 2002 and 2003; held positions on the Constitution Committee, the Mentoring Committee and the Accreditation Committee; drafted the AIPP diversity and inclusion policy; judged the state awards and the APPA; served as AIPP reflections state coordinator; and was a regular organizer and speaker at AIPP events.
Beyond AIPP, Wardaugh is also a sincere volunteer, co-creator of the feminist photography organization, Loud and Luminous, and is set to launch Women Photographers Australia.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Inside Imaging has always offered an open publishing forum to anyone with relevant and legally acceptable contributions. Do you have something to say? Comment below or email [email protected]

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