Every photographer knows how hard it can be to edit a large set of images down to a select few. Every photographer also knows how that process is key to strengthening any photo-project. The way that I handle this same challenge is that I now often crowd-sourcing my editing.
Once a long term photo-project of mine has come together (in my head and in my images) I find it useful and productive to get feedback from people who have not been involved in the shoots. I make 4 x 6 inch prints of my top images, typically from a drug store or photo lab and I show these images to different people. I ask them to look through the stack (of as many as one hundred images) to pick out their favorite fifteen images. I give the same instructions to all the people who I ask to help me with this editing. While I show this set to photography peers, I also show the stack of work to non-photographers to get a wide range of input.
After each person has picked out their top fifteen images, I turn them face down and write their initials on the back of the selected images. After a while, certain prints have lots of initials on the back and others have none of these “votes.” In an effort not too ask too much of my friends, I try to keep the stack to under one hundred 4 x 6 inch prints, which means I periodically take out those images that get no “votes” and I add new images that I am producing as I continue the project.
I also do a similar exercise with groups of workshop students. To speed up the process (and to help them understand the world of a publication photographer) I tell them “You are the reviewing board of the ___________ magazine/museum/festival. (In the case of a magazine I say the National Geographic and in the case of a museum I use the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.) You are going to edit 100 images from my project down to a top fifteen. Your mission is to make a set that strikes a balance between the informational and the aesthetic, so the final set is strong both formally and in terms of content.”
Then I appoint one student to be the advocate for the formal aspects, another student to be the advocate for the content and a third student to be the boss who arbitrates any disagreements (and keeps the editing process moving along.) Then I give them half an hour and I stand back to watch the debates ensue.
I periodically remind them of how much time they have left. When they are done, I turn over the fifteen they have selected and then I initial them with a few letters that are a reminder of the name of the group or class that did the edting. I show them the collective “votes” on the images they selected and, equally importantly, the “votes” on the images they discarded.
I close by reminding them of the subjective nature of editing. I also suggest that they look closely at which images they individually preferred and try to figure out why. The more observant students get a better understanding of what they are drawn to and where their own interest and aesthetics lie. I tell them to think about that by envisioning an imaginary spectrum arcing from the highly formal to the purely content driven imagery.
After a couple dozen people have reviewed the set of work, I can see by the initials on the back of the images which photos work best for the most people (and which ones work best for certain people whose input I especially value.) When this collective input and my own editing ideas correlate, then I know that I am working in the right direction.