Lessons learned judging a photo contest

I spent time in early October judging the annual Pollux Awards, which are given out by the Worldwide Photography Gala Awards. The juror’s statement, which I wrote after the judging, was recently posted along with the winning work. The whole process was an education for me. I thought that turning my experience into a blog entry would enable me to take others on the same educational journey that I recently undertook.

You can see the winning images at http://www.thegalaawards.net/announcements/september-contest-pollux-awards the images are first and the statement (which is built into what you will see below) follows.

I enjoyed jurying the WPGA competition immensely. It gave me a window into the incredibly varied universe of different ways photography is practiced today. Though I work as an editorial photographer, I enjoyed seeing work beyond my own specialty. I tried to evaluate the work on the most basic level, asking myself over and over, is this image compelling me to consider something differently than before I saw the image? Another way of approaching the work was to ask, does this work provoke an emotional, intellectual or psychological reaction in me beyond my simply recognizing what I am seeing?

As I looked through the work, I was reminded that, as an educator I always approach anything I do in the world of photography as a teachable moment and this was certainly one.

As someone who studied the history of photography, I know the incredible diversity of image making styles and strategies that have been used throughout the history of the medium. It was thrilling to see so many of those different styles and strategies being so widely applied in the work I reviewed. Though I do not know for certain, but I am assuming, most of the work I was reviewing involved digital capture (and most likely digital post-production and output.) The pleasant surprise is the fact that so many photographers have mastered digital imaging to the point where they can make images with dozens of different stylistic approaches very easily.

Unfortunately, some of the imagery announced itself as digital in an obvious and problematic way. However, in most of the work, whatever digital imaging techniques were used looked to be done so in support of the image and the message, rather than overwhelming it.

Some work showed an extraordinary commitment to a given subject matter, to a stylistic approach or to both. The winners were usually obvious, in the sense that they utilized many of the more successful imaging strategies that I will explore below. In some way, the really weak work was equally easy to spot and discard. For me, the hardest part was the work that was in the middle, the work that kept prompting me to say to myself “almost.”

I was keeping notes as I viewed, re-viewed and then judged and then finally scored the work. My process was to look at all of the work in one category, so I knew everything that had been submitted. Then I went through and accepted or rejected the work in that one category. Then I went to do something else, to let that work slowly fade in my mind’s eye. Then I would revisit the work to rate the accepted images, starting by looking at all of the work in a category, so I knew all the work that I had accepted. Then I went through and scored the work.

The notes I made as I went through this process are things I would tell anyone considering submitting work for a photo contest:

• Look objectively at the categories and place your work where it goes based on your first, visceral reaction to the work. (Or, you might ask someone you respect, what is his or her first reaction to the work.) Do NOT over-intellectualize the categorization by focusing on some small aspect of the image to enter it, for example, in the environmental category when the image is clearly a nature photo. This was especially frustrating for me, because images that I rejected in one category might have done very well were they in the right category.

• Some of the categories did not have all that much work entered, making my job easier. That also greatly increased the odds for the relatively low number of applicants in those sparsely filled categories.

• When making photographs and deciding which to submit for a contest, publication, portfolio, etc., think about how the best photographs in any genre take the viewer somewhere new emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc. The key to much great art is showing the viewer something they have not seen (or have not thought of looking at “that way.”)

• Another way of thinking of this is to not simply show the viewer what a person, place or thing looked like. Show them what it feels like to be that person, to be in that place or to be part of that event, etc.

I hate to make generalizations, but I noted that the professional submissions generally showed higher technical skills and image execution. On the other hand, the non-professionals were often as adventurous if not more so than the professionals, in bending the rules and imaging conventions to make interesting projects. This suggests that doing photography for a living can constrain one’s thinking and creativity.

The lesson in all of this is that if your work was rejected and something that you think of as similar to yours was accepted (or even won an award,) try to understand why. In the case of projects, for example, was the winner’s entry more tightly edited, visually cohesive or stylistically unified than your submission? Griping is one possible reaction, but clearly analyzing what your worked lacked in comparison to the winners is key step in getting better as a photographer.

The prizes you might win in this competition (or any other) are nice. The real prize is getting better as a photographer. That prize is there for ANY photographer willing to look at the winners (and their own work) analytically, even critically. An award is a momentary thing, but creative growth lasts forever.

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