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The Red Bull Illume Image Quest 2021 international photo competition—now in its sixth year and showcasing “the world’s greatest adventure and action sports imagery”—has announced winners for 2021. The overall winner is U.S. photographer Will Saunders for his photo, titled, “Dirtbag Superhero.”

The winning image was shot in Indian Creek, Utah, and depicts rock climber Jake Talley in action. “I asked Jake to really shape his body into more of a powerful movement rather than the classic falling position. His body reminded me of a superhero, which is fitting to me because most of my friends in this action sports world are my heroes,” says Saunders. You can see more of Saunders’ work here.

Categories & winners

The image depicts mountain biker Dylan Siggers riding through a sun-pierced cloud of dust.
Bruno Long (Canada) won for the RAW by Leica category, which is for images taken straight out of the camera and are uncropped, untouched, and have no filter applied to them. The image depicts mountain biker Dylan Siggers riding through a sun-pierced cloud of dust. © Bruno Long / Red Bull Illume

Will Saunders’ winning image was selected by a judging panel of 53 renowned photo editors and photo experts, who reviewed a total of 41,447 submissions for the contest. The jury also narrowed down the submissions to 256 semifinalists, then 56 finalists, and finally, 11 category winners.

Here are the category winners from this year’s Red Bull Illume competition (you can read more about each category here):

  • Best of Instagram photography category winner & video category winner: Yhabril (Spain) won for his photo of a skier and a snowboarder silhouetted against the moon. Bruno Diego Cavalcante (Brazil) also won for his video of skateboarder Sara Watanabe in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  • Creative by Skylum category winner: Jan Kasl (Czech Republic) won for his surreal image, titled, “The Spiral,” of a skaterboarder inside a spiral.
  • Emerging by Black Diamond category winner: Victoria Kohner-Flanagan (U.S.) won for her photo of a resting climber.
  • Energy by Red Bull category winner: Rod Hill (New Zealand) won for his photo of River Mutton, a kayaker bursting through a rapid at Huka Falls, New Zealand.
  • RAW by Leica category winner: Bruno Long (Canada) won for his photo of mountain biker Dylan Siggers riding through a sun-pierced cloud of dust.
  • Innovation by EyeEm category winner: Thomas Monsorno (Italy) won for his image of a climber on ice.
  • Lifestyle by COOPH category winner: Carolin Unrath (Germany) won for her black-and-white image of a surfer about to board a train in Munich.
  • Masterpiece by SanDisk Professional category winner: Will Saunders (U.S.) won for his dramatic photo depicting rock climber Jake Talley, who is “striking a pose” as he takes a fall on a spectacular rock tower in Indian Creek, Utah.
  • Photo Story category winner: Philipp Klein Herrero (Spain) won for a very creative stop-motion video, which depicts a day in the mountains…at home.
  • Playground by WhiteWall category winner: Markus Berger (Austria) won for his shot of a wakeboarder in action inside a glacier.
New Zealand photographer Rod Hill won in the Energy category for his photo, titled “Huka Falls,” which shows kayaker River Mutton dramatically emerging from a rapid at Huka Falls in New Zealand.
New Zealand photographer Rod Hill won in the Energy category for his photo, titled “Huka Falls,” which shows kayaker River Mutton dramatically emerging from a rapid at Huka Falls in New Zealand. Hill said it was a case of not being able to get into position, and then realizing he was actually in the right place at the right time: “I didn’t have time to get to my normal spot, so instead I tried this angle. All of a sudden, the light popped like I’d never seen before and straight away I knew this was going to work.” © Rod Hill / Red Bull Illume

We took a closer look at some of our other favorite category-winning shots below.

2021 Red Bull Illume competition: Lifestyle by COOPH category winner

Carolin Unrath (Germany) won the Lifestyle by COOPH category for her black-and-white image of a surfer about to board a train in Munich.
Carolin Unrath (Germany) won the Lifestyle by COOPH category for her black-and-white image of a surfer about to board a train in Munich. © Carolin Unrath / Red Bull Illume

Related: The most impactful photojournalism of 2021

Carolin Unrath won the Lifestyle by COOPH category for her charming black-and-white image of a surfer about to board a train in Munich. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition of a motionless surfer wearing a mask while watching the blur of a speeding train pass by. “The shot ‘Surfmask’ is part of a series I’ve created with Peter Scherb in Munich in May 2020,” says Unrath. “I’ve always loved seeing Munich’s Eisbach river wave surfers all over the city. That’s why we joined Andi on one of his first sessions when the river wave reopened after lockdown in 2020. The shot shows him on his way to the Eisbach.”

2021 Red Bull Illume competition: Playground by WhiteWall category winner

Markus Berger (Austria) won the Playground by WhiteWall category for his photograph, titled, “Wake the Glacier” of a wakeboarder waterskiing inside a glacier.
Markus Berger (Austria) won the Playground by WhiteWall category for his photograph, titled, “Wake the Glacier” of a wakeboarder waterskiing inside a glacier. © Markus Berger / Red Bull Illume

Commercial sports photographer Markus Berger—who won the Playground by WhiteWall category for his photograph, titled, “Wake the Glacier”—describes the setting for the shot as being in “a crazy location…deep in the mountain and below the surface.” In fact, the image was captured inside Hintertux Glacier, which is located in Austria. “The ‘nature ice palace’ is a fairy tale world inside a glacier, which also contains an underground lake with -0.8°C water,” which is around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Berger says that Red Bull set up a crew to help make this shot happen. “During a two-day production we managed to get a cool action shot of Dominik Hernler,” says Berger, “who completed this challenging task like a champ. With a 6.5mm wetsuit, he didn’t hesitate and was able to ride and turn in this very narrow location and under very difficult circumstances.”  

Taking the photo was challenging as well. “After more than three hours in the water, I didn’t feel anything below my waist and one of my cameras failed, as well,” says Berger, who felt lucky to have the camera fire at the right moment. “Right after this shot, the camera shut down.” 

2021 Red Bull Illume competition: Creative by Skylum category winner

Jan Kasl (Czech Republic) won in the Creative by Skylum category for his surreal image, titled, “The Spiral,” of a skater inside a spiral.
Jan Kasl (Czech Republic) won in the Creative by Skylum category for his surreal image, titled, “The Spiral,” of a skater inside a spiral. © Jan Kasl / Red Bull Illume

The idea for this photo, titled, “The Spiral”—which helped Jan Kasl win in the Creative by Skylum category—came to the photographer while shooting another campaign. That other project, Kasl says, was based on the concept of forced perspective, which is a photography technique that uses optical illusion to make objects appear larger, smaller, farther away, or closer than they are. “It’s what thousands of tourists do,” Kasl says when they hold their arms up to “hold” the leaning Tower of Pisa up. “With a tool like forced perspective,” says Kasl, “I felt like I could push it a little further, bending reality and bringing the athlete into an absolutely surreal environment.”

2021 Red Bull Illume competition: Best of Instagram category winner

Yhabril (Spain) won the Best of Instagram (photography) category for his photo of a skier and a snowboarder silhouetted against the moon.
Yhabril (Spain) won the Best of Instagram (photography) category for his photo of a skier and a snowboarder silhouetted against the moon. © Yhabril / Red Bull Illume

“We worked hard for a week, just planning and preparing,” says action sports photographer Yhabril, who won the Best of Instagram (photography) category for his photo of a skier and a snowboarder silhouetted against the moon. 

Yhabril says what’s particularly difficult to achieve in a shot like this one is “to place the two kickers in the right place.” What also made taking the image a challenge, he says, was that it needed to be captured at an elevation of 10,000 feet and included the use of lots of heavy gear. “Once you have the scenery ready, you just have to wait for the moment and pray for a bluebird sky that day, along with being confident in the riders to synchronize the jump and the handplant. That’s the real challenge.” 

About the competition

Submissions for the contest were open from March 1st through August 1st, 2021. Photographers could either enter on redbullillume.com or on Instagram by tagging @redbullillume and using hashtag #rbi21submission. The 2022 competition is not yet open.

This year, the top prizes for the overall winner include a Leica camera, Lenovo PC, computer monitor, and other equipment worth around 50,000 euros (or about $56,380). The category winners and the finalists also received prizes worth around 10,000 euros (or about $11,276) and 2,000 euros (or about $2,255), respectively. For more on the prizes, click here. To learn more about the rules for the contest, click here.

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