“Congratulations, you’ve won.”

For photo contest entrants, this is an eagerly awaited email, recognizing their talent and hard work. From spectacular scenes in far flung locations to intimate, emotional moments, National Geographic photo contests receive powerful, storytelling photos from around the world—and a lucky few photographers walk away named the grand prize winner.

But, what happens after the big day? Does winning change photographers’ work and lives? Does winning change the type of imagery photographers create? Before the 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest starts on October 15, we checked back with past photo contest winners to learn how winning a Nat Geo prize impacted their lives and photography.

Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan, 2017 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year Contest Grand Prize Winner

Bojan captured a stirring image of an orangutan to win the 2017 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year grand prize. His career has fast-forwarded since then, from work with conservation NGOs to an assignment covering sustainability for the Singapore edition of National Geographic.

“Winning the grand title has given me a new status in the photography community, and in general. That also means that with status and fame comes responsibility. I have also been using my pictures to influence people to take note of the challenges with palm oil farming and how people around the world as consumers could help,” reflects Bojan. He’ll continue to photograph monkeys, apes, and primates across Asia, as he prepares to publish a book of his work. [Read how the winning image was made.]

Greg Lecoeur, 2016 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year Contest Grand Prize Winner

“I remember the exact moment when I heard that I won this prize—the event left an unforgettable mark on my mind,” says Greg Lecoeur, the 2016 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year Contest winner. “The prize has increased the scope of my work in visibility and in world exposure.

Lecouer’s winning image of sardines provided access to new missions and increased opportunities. Since winning, his work took him to Norway for an assignment documenting the migration of herring. And in 2019, Lecoeur will join a sailboat expedition to Antarctica, along with a free diver and filmmaker, to capture the remote landscape and its wildlife. “I hope that my atypical story will inspire people to live life with passion and reach their dreams,” he says. “Do not hesitate to change your life to do what you love.” [See more winning images from the 2016 Nature Photographer of the Year Contest.]

Anthony Lau, 2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest Grand Prize Winner

In 2016, Anthony Lau’s image of a horseman racing through a snowy landscape in Inner Mongolia earned him a trip with National Geographic Expeditions to visit Churchill, Manitoba, for a chance to photograph polar bears.

“Seeing [a] polar bear on the field is a life-changing experience, and the photos I captured from these majestic creatures also helped me to gain more interesting opportunities in the market,” says Lau.

Since winning, Lau has led a photo workshop in Kenya, and even spoken at the Royal Geographic Society in Hong Kong. This fall he’ll work with a photo tour group in Hong Kong to coach participants photographing the autumn landscape in Sichuan, China. “Photography to me is now much more than winning a contest or getting more opportunities; it is a platform for me to bond my friends and family together, and a medium for me to do the right things—highlighting the pressing issues that we need everyone to contribute together,” he says. [Learn the story behind the making of this grand-prize winnning photo.]

James Smart, 2015 National Geographic Photo Contest Grand Prize Winner

Smart’s winning image of a dirt-covered, anti-cyclonic tornado blew away the competition in the 2015 National Geographic Photo Contest. The Australian photographer has since been working with publications around the world, selling prints, and traveling widely, while working with tourism boards to document regions from a salt lake in Victoria to the Whitsundays on the Great Barrier Reef.

Recently, Smart transitioned to focus on underwater photography. “I have had the chance to be asked up to Hervey Bay to photograph the humpback whales,” says the photographer. After capturing such a striking tornado image, is Smart still hungry for more treacherous weather events? “Returning to Tornado Alley is another big goal in the new year.”

Think you have the winning image? The 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest starts October 15. Visit natgeo.com/photocontest to learn more and enter to win up to $7,500.

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