Blurred lines...the state of photographic competitions.

October 19, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

It has been an absolute age since I last wrote a blog. 2017 has been an immensely challenging year for me personally and unfortunately I've had to prioritise my life over my passions. I've still been out with the camera and recently had some fantastic projects to work on. But the social media and content generation has had to take a back seat. I am hoping "normal service" will be resumed towards year end. 

In the interim I feel compelled to write a blog. No images, just words. This is a topic that that has been bubbling deep inside me for about a year now. However, photographic etiquette kind of has this unwritten rule...you don't criticise photographic competitions. 

I don't want to criticise for the sake of criticising. But I do want to highlight some observations. And these observations are fair. 

Let me start by stating: yes I have entered photographic competitions. And yes, on occasions I will continue to enter photographic competitions. 

Let me now qualify that last paragraph. Why? Do I expect to win? No. So why do I enter? Because for me the idea of a competition is as a "stress test" of my own photography. Think of it as a barometer. I like to know where my photography sits, how it fairs, is it capable of passing a stage gate process i.e. the judging panel. To date I've entered 5 competitions over 4 years. I've been shortlisted in 2 competitions: European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and Outdoor Photographer of the Year. My images did not go further in those competitions. But it was satisfying to see which images judges were drawn to. 

Now I have to qualify the last paragraph (again). Are competitions CONSISTENTLY a benchmark of good photography? They should be. But it depends. A competition assembles a judging panel of "people". These people may be magazine editors, photographers, or even a director of the competition sponsor. These judging panels might be a very well experienced group or a completely random selection of people. In either case the bottom line is, in a competition you are trying to pass your images to the next stage based on multiple people's perceptions. And those perceptions will differ a huge amount person to person. You know the old saying "you can't please all of the people all of the time". So behind closed doors, how do you know that a judge who likes your image will have a strong enough voice to convince the other judges it is worthy of advancing OVER another judge who does not believe your image is worthy? So not only do perceptions of judges differ, their ability to influence a group plays a huge role in the process. And this is why at the end of the day competitions as they currently stand are nothing more than a PUNT (if you don't know what that word means, go google it!). 

With this weeks announcement of the WPY winners, I've felt compelled to write this blog about competitions. This years WPY results have been the catalyst for me to break silence publicly, although I've had a number of private discussions with close friends (also wildlife photographers) about the state of competitions. I won't repeat those discussions, but I will say that I am not alone in feeling discouraged at the current state of affairs across the board for wildlife, landscape and nature photographic competitions. 

I said at the top of this blog I wanted to highlight observations rather than criticise any one specific competition. And as I've explained I have some experience in submitting to competitions so I am qualified to highlight these observations, and I do so with the simple premise of trying to level the playing field for all photographers. 

Let me start with a general observation for what is marketed as "the most prestigious wildlife photographic competition", WPY. WPY is the short acronym for The National History Museum (NHM) Wildlife Photographer of the Year. In some circles it is still called "BBC" which is it's older name. Let me be clear, it is called NHM, WPY. What I have observed with WPY over the past 5 years is the following:

  • A clear emphasis on images being finalists based on a conservation angle/message/story first, over the actual field and camera craft involved in taking the image.
  • No real evolution of the categories to take into consideration a rapidly changing technology landscape (remote control cameras, drones and other camera technology innovations).
  • A reticence to highlight issues relating to photography ethics in obtaining images, including a lack of transparency or terms and conditions in accepting images. If you don't understand this last sentence I am referring specifically to baiting, or staging of a specific image. 
  • A very slow but sure lack of understanding of the photographic skill involved behind the images that are submitted. This combined with a lack of understanding of how post development can drastically change the final image from that which is taken in camera. 

These are my observations. If WPY is to continue to claim that it is the most "prestigious" wildlife photographic competition, it needs to readdress the emphasis on photography FIRST. What I see, year on year, is that winning category images, and many highly commended images have a big emphasis on conservation. Don't get me wrong conservation of species should be on the top of all of our agendas. This is why I believe WPY should have a separate category that is dedicated to images with a conservation theme. Another observation I am seeing is that year on year the same photographers are finalists, and many, even the majority are professionals. "Ah! Well that's because they are consistent in taking quality images" I hear you say. Maybe. But the only difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is the former earns money from photography. Being professional doesn't necessarily mean they take better images than an Amateur. And with that in mind I was more than overjoyed to see in 2015, Don Gutoski winning the competition for an image which showed a huge commitment, field and camera craft...and Don was an Amateur when he took the image. I'm not anti-pro, but my point is simple. Pro's get commissioned...by editors...and what do editors want? Stories on conservation. So pro's are already working in that domain. How many amateur's are taking incredible images of everyday species and behaviour where no conservation story exists? Many. So is the competition really embracing the full spectrum of photographic and field craft? Personally I don't think it is. I think what it comes down to today is that a "proof shot" of a conservation issue will trump a skilled composition combined with real field craft. And for me that skews the whole playing field for what is supposed to be the most "prestigious" competition. Prestigious maybe, representative? I'm not so sure.  

And as for other competitions?

Well yes, there are other issues I've observed. There is one competition in particular, I won't mention, but I have had a really bad experience with. Here's a summary of the observations:

  • A relatively new competition that has focused heavily on the commercial aspects of the competition with both sponsors, and publicity. These aspects for me question the credibility behind the basis of the competition. The competition entry fee is the most expensive of any wildlife competition (more expensive than WPY). 
  • The judging panel that has been inconsistent in its selection and shortlisting process. The judging panel has consisted of high profile personalities, personnel from the sponsors, picture editors and in the end maybe...a photographer. 
  • Images from the same sequences submitted from a photographer have been shortlisted across multiple categories!
  • The categories have been poorly defined, and in the last running of the competition, changed mid competition in order to justify and encompass the judges decisions (a shocking moving of the goal posts). 
  • The category winners and finalists are more or less the same photographers. At the awards ceremony which I attended I counted at least 4 photographers that had multiple category wins or were placed in the top 3. This to me raises questions on the judging panel being sensitised to a specific group of photographers or a specific style/aesthetic of photograph.
  • The head judge at the awards ceremony admitted that he would look daily at one of the category winners Instagram account. How can this head judge then be seen as impartial and unbiased if he has a specific preference for the photography of one photographer? (side comment - this competition is a specific species sub category within Wildlife). 
  • Again, significant question marks on the ethics behind certain images submitted with regards to staging and/or baiting. Nothing in the terms or conditions at the time of entry submission for the photographer to make a disclosure.  

These observations come from entering this competition two years in a row. And fundamentally my concern remains that PHOTOGRAPHY is not at the heart and soul of this competition. And more broadly I am seeing the same issue over and over with many other competitions. There are other agendas which are taking centre stage over and beyond the core competencies of camera and field craft. So what is the result of this?

Well it's simple. Lack of credibility. 

I know many acclaimed photographers, many professionals who no longer submit to competitions. They have their own reasons and I don't want to put words in their mouths. But if I don't feel like it's a level playing field then some of my fellow photographers who have been in the game a lot longer than me, and take incredible images, must have the same feeling. 

I don't want to tar all competitions with the same brush. There is one competition that I commit to entering each year because it is an outstanding competition and I believe it is well established and stays true to the roots of the photography it represents. It is also progressive and embraces new trends by evolving it's categories. So there are some gems out there. 

But what needs to happen is that photography needs to be judged based on photography. Think about it, no matter how pretty a plate of food on Masterchef looks, if it tastes like crap, it's going to get eliminated. Judging panels need to look beyond the frame and have a better understanding of the craft involved to serve that image up on a plate.

Until next time...

Jon

 


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