I generally consider art and competition to be incompatible. After all, appreciation of art is a subjective matter and ‘winning’ is no more than an affirmation that an image met with the personal sensibilities of a random judge. Still, competitions do have the potential to be about more than just dazzling prizes or the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. When adjudicated by a conscientious judge, they can also be opportunities for growth.
One such opportunity can be realized by carefully reviewing the entries. Rather than asking why a given image won, look instead at all other entries and ask yourself why they did not win. What made the winner better in the mind of the judge than all the others? Oftentimes such a review may reveal much about the judge’s personal preferences, biases, expertise and, more importantly, the specific criteria that played into their decision (which may well be different from your own).
There are many ways to rank images. The most prevalent and least useful is to base the decision on aesthetics alone. There is little to be gained in terms of artistic growth from complimenting someone on accomplishing a technically competent cover version of already well-known compositions, or on fortuitous circumstances having more to do with luck than anything within the photographer’s control.
On the occasion that I am asked to judge a photography contest, my decision is always based on how aesthetics complement creativity. In other words, I seek images that are not merely attractive to behold, but are also original. Originality may manifest in composition, subject matter, processing or any other aspect so long as it speaks to deliberate choices made by the photographer rather than merely showing up at a prescribed place and time or repeating other people’s creative accomplishments.
Rewarding a photographer for images that express only technical competency, but where the subject matter or composition show little creativity, ultimately is not doing them (and in a greater sense, all photographers) a great favour. If anything, it further legitimizes the practice of ‘checklist photography,’ which is, at best creatively deficient. But when a judge seeks to highlight and reward creativity, the message propagates well beyond those fortunate to win prizes; it sets a bar for all who strive to make their work more creative, more original, more personal and more unique.
Choose your contests carefully. Some may reward you with desirable prizes, which is as good a reason as any to enter. However, if you wish for your work to be evaluated in terms of creative skill, personal style and presentation, you should also choose your judges carefully and know something about their philosophy.
Never take winning or not winning as an objective measure of the worth of your work; only its worth in the mind of whoever is judging the contest. And should you decide to enter a contest in which I am a judge, consider that I don’t need to know what equipment you used, how far you travelled or even where your image was made. I want to know that you are proficient with your tools but, more importantly, that you used your imagination and not just your camera.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 39 of Landscape Photography Magazine.