Images by award-winning photographers that were submitted to a Sydney festival have been censored to make them more “family friendly,” a move one critic argues is a cramp on public expression.

The New South Wales state government has heavily censored the public display of photographs in the 2013 Sydney Reportage Photography Festival, part of Vivid Sydney, which started on Friday. It’s billed as a festival of light installations and projections, music, public talks and debates from creative thinkers.

Some award-winning photographers have withdrawn their images from the Vivid Ideas program in protest after Destination NSW chose to review, edit, cut-down and censor significant portions of their work.

The controversial photos depicted human conflict and the aftermath of natural disasters in Australia. It’s understood they included images by renowned photographers such as Yuri Kozyrev, Paula Bronstein, Ashley Gilbertson and Tim Page.

The works were initially intended to be displayed on two public screens at Sydney’s Cahill Expressway and Cadman’s Cottage from May 25 till June 13. However, due to “contractual agreements” to keep the festival a family-friendly event, the full works will now only be shown inside “closed venues”, a spokeswoman for Destination NSW told Crikey.

One photographer claimed that over two-thirds of the people who had submitted work have “either been banned from our outdoor projections, or have elected to pull their bodies of work” after having their presentation edited.

Former foreign correspondent for CNN, Michael Ware, who has worked closely with many of the censored photographers in warzones, told Crikey he’s heartbroken to think their work won’t receive prominent and public display in Australia. “I know these people. I know their work. These are among the very best conflict photographers on our planet,” Ware said.

War photographer Tim Stoddart previously had his photos publicly displayed on London’s South Bank, “in a markedly similar fashion as these photo essays were intended for Circular Quay”, according to Ware. “If the public display here has been ‘curtailed’ or ‘trimmed’ then Australians are the only ones in the free world who would think to do so.”

Destination NSW acknowledges images which can evoke “powerful emotional reactions” are a reason why “Reportage is an exhibition that attracts the best photographers and photo news journalists”. However, they still censored some of these works so as to not potentially offend viewers. “Some images were removed on the basis that they might offend or distress families, children and the general public attending Vivid and/or were not in keeping with the values of the event,” the spokeswoman for Destination NSW said.

Ware says the photographers and exhibition curators have “something they wish to say … in a way the law allows” and there’s nothing wrong with this form of public expression. “Where is there wrong in wanting to ‘speak’ to people bustling past in Circular Quay through their images? This is not shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema. This is shouting ‘life’, hoping someone might hear it,” he said.