This year I was asked to judge a major photo competition. It meant looking at the work of 150 photographers, and each had submitted ten pictures, so I had 1500 images to hold in my mind and evaluate. That’s a lot to keep track of, at least for me, so I used a set of guidelines to help me through the process. I thought you might like to have some insight as to what goes through a judge’s mind when they are looking at your work, so here’s a peek at what was going through mine.
Consistency — For this event, we looked at the work in two rounds. The preliminary one scored a photographers work as a body, and only the highest scoring photographers were moved into the second round. We judged each picture on a scale of one to ten, so if I gave someone one ten, three fives and six threes that would total forty-three points, while someone else with four sevens and six fours would get fifty-two. This rewards a body of work that is all headed in the same direction, made with similar intention and skills shown each time. That picture that got a ten in the first photographers’ work might be a great lucky shot that lives forever, but it doesn’t make them a great photographer all by itself. Show me you were aiming at the same bullseye for all the pictures and we can talk about how close you came to it.
Craft — I was not looking at the work in a vacuum. Each photographer was up against a hundred and fifty other photographers. Many had spent years refining their skills, learning how to guide the eye to where they wanted it to go, learning how to make images that can’t come out of a phone filter. When I looked at one person’s work, I was thinking about the work of the others too. Judging this way, it became clear who needed more woodshed time, who might profit from more time staring at the work of others in galleries or museums or books.
Content — What were the pictures about? I understood that many of these pictures had been made as part of a journey, and so in some sense, the photographer had to make them. But having made them, they were now being looked at by others. So what is the impact of the pictures on others? In some ways, this may be the hardest part for a photographer to see. It’s not easy to put yourself outside of your work. In fact, it’s very difficult. But unless you are hugely dispassionate, it’s necessary to show your work to others and listen hard for their feedback. If you are lucky enough to have someone tell you why they didn’t fall in love with your work, take their words into your heart, and see what you can learn from them. It may not be much fun, but it’s useful.
Where does this picture fit in the world? — When I’m looking at your photos, I’m asking myself; Would I have this one on my wall? Would I look at this in a magazine or online? Could I imagine this in a museum? If the answer is no, then I’m going to have a hard time giving it the highest marks. Pictures don’t exist in a vacuum; they live in the world, in some specific place in the world. If they live mainly in your head, that doesn’t make them less valuable, but that’s a small audience. The next time you are making selections to show someone ask yourself, where would I run into this picture if someone else had made it? Wander through the pages of a magazine you like or your favorite curated photography website and see if you can imagine your picture in there among the others.
Make me feel something dammit! — If you want to get to ten, stir my emotions. This is me now, not everyone, but if you want to get my top scores, your picture will have to connect with both my intellect and my emotions. Intellect is the easier of the two I think. The well-formed picture, the use of light, the organization of the elements, I see that I respect it, and I give you points for it. The things that stir emotion though are not so easy to entice into your image as I well know from experience.
The pictures we collectively remember and applaud have something that causes a direct, visceral response in others. I pray for it in my work, and I look for it in your work too. It’s not easy to know for sure because it’s easy to mistake your emotional response to a picture you’ve made with the feelings of others but if I give a picture a ten you can be sure it stirred me.
Here’s what I didn’t judge on; I tried hard not to judge your pictures in the context of the whole history of photography. That’s not what we were judging here, only the best of the submissions. I chose the ones that astounded, or amused, or awoke something in me.
I have my biases; I can’t help it — I’ve been looking at and making pictures for sixty years. I do my best to appreciate work, unlike my own and the good news for you is that I like a wide range of styles and subjects. Nonetheless, I’m sure I missed something while I was doing my looking and if it was your work, I’m sorry. That’s why this competition had three judges. It made sure there were enough eyes and opinions to ensure every picture was seen from multiple viewpoints.
And as proof the system works, here’s a story about how things went. In the first round of judging, all three judges looked at the work of all 150 photographers. We judged ten pictures from each one, giving each picture a score from one to ten. I spent days on this part, making the first pass then going back a second time after I had some knowledge of the whole field, then a third time a few days later to see if my feelings had changed. When all that was done, I sent off my results, and the other judges did too. Then the scores of all three judges were compiled to choose the twenty semifinalists we would judge for top honors. To my complete astonishment, the other judges didn’t totally agree with me!!! Although we agreed on many choices, they picked some pictures I had left behind, and they left behind a few of my very favorite shots. How could that be? Maybe taste or opinion, a predilection for one kind of photography over another, who knows? And that leads me to my final observation;
In the end, it’s entering that matters, not winning. It’s nice to win, of course, we all like validation and a few bucks, but it was always in the cards that most of the photographers were not going to get that validation. What they did get was the chance to look at their work from the outside, to pick and choose with an eye to what the rest of the world might be seeing and to reflect on their work and where it was headed. Any contest is a moment in time, a chance to put a pin on the map that marks where you are right now. The next time you enter a contest, it’s an opportunity to put another pin in the map, and between them, maybe you can see where you are headed.
The contest is only an organizing impulse, a moment when you can take stock and hopefully see your work afresh. That’s valuable any day, win or lose.
I don’t just judge pictures; I make them too. You can see what I’m up to here