Judging the Wedding Photojournalism competition

I was recently asked to to be one of four judges to pick the winners in the quarterly competition of the The Wedding Photojournalist Association. As I was looking at the work, I was reminded how I had judged the same competition six years ago, before I was blogging regularly. During this round of judging, I was keeping notes to share with the organization and the competitors. Naturally, I thought of turning those notes into this blog entry.

The Wedding Photojournalist Association site says this about their group:

• Since 2002 the WPJA has been the number one trusted source for the best wedding photojournalists in the world. The WPJA is an international network of vigorously vetted professional photographers whose work is regularly judged by award-winning photojournalists (including many Pulitzer Prize-winners) and news photo editors. With ongoing curatorial vision the association identifies emerging talent, keeping our talent pool fresh and cutting edge. The WPJA is dedicated to upholding the highest standards in creative wedding photojournalism while promoting best business practices. http://www.wpja.com/about-wpja/

If you want to see the current winners go to: http://www.wpja.com/contests/54-2012-q2-contest/contest-details.html To see examples of previous competition winners look at: http://www.wpja.com/contests/past-contests.html One thing I remember from 2006 was the international nature of the entries. In the work that I was judging in 2012 (and the winners of the immediate preceding quarter) there is even more of an international mix of photographers. With four judges there are undoubtedly four perspectives on what is “the best” work.“ I will be discussing issues raised as I was looking through my particular selection of winners.

Looking at the work from across the globe, I realized that such an international scope is a double edged sword. All that competition between members (and across national lines) has undoubtedly raised the bar and made many wedding photojournalists into much better photographers. Doubly so these people working in smaller markets without a lot of exposure to different approaches to photography, On the other hand, my concern is the feedback loop that can happen in this kind of photography competition. An example of this phenomenon would be when a style, pose, use of a lens or use of a kind of lighting wins an award and then that winning approach is shared across the globe through these kinds of competitions. Thereafter photographers face a decision, should they imitate that winning strategy or go in another direction all together?

While this same phenomenon occurs in many genres of photography (especially photojournalism for publications) I suspect it is especially prevalent in the sphere of wedding photography. I say that because wedding photography is a genre where the clients evaluate what they like (and therefore pay for) based almost exclusively on what they see in wedding publications and in the wedding albums of others. In the fine-art photography, in theory at least, curators and critics are added to the mix of who defines what is great “fine-art” photography.

Also, the aesthetic of wedding photojournalism and wedding photography in general sits at the intersection of three competing forces. The bride (and groom) are in one corner. The wedding industry with all its publications, experts and sites in the other corner. The third pole in this is the photographer themselves, with an allegiance to their profession as well as to some notion of documenting what they are seeing in front of them, even if that may not be the most uplifting or flattering scene.

Having done a fair amount of wedding photojournalism years ago I can attest to the fact that nearly every bride-and-groom-to-be likes to think about having their photos pushing new stylistic boundaries. The best example of this is the explosion in black and white wedding photos, even though the color imaging technology is so good these days. Despite the idea of creating a “novel” wedding album, most couples end up back in the stylistic “middle” in response to social pressure, parental pressure and media influence. They may have an occasional idiosyncratic image or three thrown in to the final album, but not much more than that.

As I left the wedding market, after realizing I was not that good at it, I was left to think of the evolving notions of wedding photography as kind of chicken and egg question. Which came first, the wedding photographer looking for a new and unique approach to a subject matter that had been photographed over and over or the wedding publications/media/sites that quickly embraced that latest style moving it from the fringe to front and center.

Another worrying aspect that I noted during my recent brief peek into the global wedding photojournalism market was seeing how Western ideas about weddings, brides, grooms, etc are spreading across the globe. On the one hand that seems almost inevitable with the dominance of Western media in the film and television realms. On the other hand, what better way to make a wedding uniquely one’s own than to mix global and local culture to reinforce the value of both? (I say that as someone whose second wedding was a hybrid of a Quaker wedding with some aspects of Jewish and Indian wedding rituals mixed in.)

This whole line of confusion was reinforced as I was judging the work recently and I wrote notes for the contest organizers (and competitors) about this exact same stylistic emulation issue as it played out in two of the seven categories within the competition, where I noted:

• This category had a lot of image approaches repeating over and over.

• This category had the most repetition/emulation/copying of any category. It may be that the situation being photographed gives few options or it may be that a limited few themes and approaches work best for these situations.

These kinds of competitions can create great learning opportunities for photographers who want to expand their style of photography beyond what is immediately surrounding them. The flip side of that is that seeing those styles may prompt some photographers to make images like the ones they see assuming that images that won prizes once should likely win them again.

Most of the work that was entered in the competition was photojournalistic, portraying real events as they unfold. Two categories explicitly involved more controlled situations which are major parts of any weddings, portraits and details shots. This got me thinking about how in photojournalism, something I used to do, we were often called upon to do controlled and contrived portraiture. Though I did a great deal of that kind of work, it was never my strong suit. It was problematic since I preferred a more photojournalistic approach, ideally being a “fly on the wall.” As I judged the competition, I wondered how this dichotomy plays out in the heads of the many great wedding photojournalists whose work I was reviewing.

I left the world of of wedding photojournalism years ago because I was simply not good enough. On top of being a good photographer (which I like to think I am) a wedding photojournalist has to be a real “people person” (which is less of a strong suit for me) and has to balance their interests and that of their client. They need to be willing to sacrifice a piece of their own aesthetic and ideology in order to make the wedding couple happy. Seeing the winners in the competition reminded me that such master wedding photojournalists are now spread across the globe. They are successful because they can balance the competing interests I have described above. It is balancing act I was unable to sustain and one that I admire in those who can pull it off.

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