Judging the 2012 Maybank Photo Awards

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This article was originally published in The Malaysian Reserve on 7 December 2012. Reproduced with permission

For the whole 14th of November, a number of people sealed themselves into a room at Menara Maybank to pick five winners from a thousand shortlisted candidates. We looked for four things: light, subject, composition, and the idea; the ability to look into the image and at the scene through the eyes of the photographer.

Judging photo competitions is not as easy as you might think: firstly, photography is art, and art is subjective. What might count as a winner for adjudicator might not necessarily be so for another; I found myself both mediating disputes and causing them.

This is perhaps a good barometer for the contest itself: out of over 19,000 entries – larger than the 2012 National Geographic and DPReview photography competitions combined – there were enough that passed initial scrutiny to make life very difficult for us. We had clear winners in some categories but insufficient runner-ups; or a very close fight for first, or even no outstanding winner at all, with every candidate lacking something. More encouragingly though, several talented photographers entered and stood out in more than one category – our Photographer of the Year, Muhamad Saleh bin Dollah; Street Photography winner, Chau Sau Khiang and Studio winner, Hairul Azizi bin Harun in particular; and yes, we judged blind without knowing the identiy of the photographer.

These photographers showed strong images across disciplines, yet managed to maintain a consistent style, standard of technical execution and compositional balance. Contrary to popular belief, specialization is not always a good thing when it comes to the arts: the experience gained from being a multidisciplinary photographer helps you to apply different techniques across various subjects to achieve a unique look to one’s images.

Our Photographer of the Year had one quality that none of the others demonstrated: the ability to consistently edit and self-critique one’s own work. Whilst we saw a lot of technically and compositionally strong portfolios, the flow of the images submitted let them down; either there would be one black sheep image that stood out uncomfortably from the rest, or the images would be too similar and show a very breadth of skill. As a photographer, one important thing to remember is that you’re judged on the images people see, not the ones they don’t – conscious exclusion is therefore critical.

The results were both encouraging, and in a way, disappointing. Whilst it’s clear that there’s some real talent in this country and the level of enthusiasm was a very pleasant surprise, the average standard of some of the ‘professional’ entries was considerably below that of the amateurs. There is clearly better work out there in the media – I’m just surprised we didn’t see any of it entered. Professionalism means consistency and quality of delivery, not merely turning up to push a button. Many people would go to great lengths for the opportunity to make photography into a career – please don’t waste that; make the most of your opportunity and have some pride in your work. Any other way, and you risk damaging not only your own reputation but also that of the entire industry.

There was actually one entry that stood out to all of the judges: Kumaraguru Krishnan’s Photographer of The Year portfolio. It’s a series of out of focus images, with some vaguely people-shaped forms. Collectively, we believe that it was the only entry that really challenged creative boundaries and whose photographer actually stopped to question the rules. Even though the images may appear to be a series of mistakes, the consistency of theme, style, color – even the amount of defocus – indicate otherwise. The set was reasonably well edited – perhaps two of the images were too similar – but otherwise, it left a positive impression on us.

To all the photographers and entrants, thank you. For next year – assuming I’m still judging – what we’d like to see is a bit more creativity. The awards are a fantastic and very visible platform to get your work seen, and who knows, perhaps launch a photographic career. Don’t assume that rules must be followed (we had a landscape where all elements were precisely placed at the rule of thirds, but completely disregarded the natural flow of the scene and thus resulted in a boring, imbalanced image) – they’re merely there as a starting point to prompt you to think and challenge your eyes.

Don’t be afraid to submit something and not win – that’s an overly kiasu mentality. Instead, challenge yourself, and focus on showing us the way you see the world. At the end of the day, it’s that continuous need for challenge and self-improvement that differentiates humans from animals and the great from the mediocre. Remember, photography is subjective: a stronger photograph makes a stronger argument, and we can all gain something from a different point of view. MT

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Comments

  1. Ali Usman Wahyu Hidayat says:

    Maybank Photo Awards 2013 Culture with Conceptuality and Contextuality is Must not Just Aesthetic

  2. The pics of the winner Muhamad Saleh Bin Dollah are stunning and I would be interested to hear more about how he made those shots, the equipment used, etc. Why don’t you invite him to write a piece for your blog?

    • Several reasons. Firstly, very few good photographers are also good writers, and secondly, I don’t put a huge amount of effort into this site to promote other people :)

  3. You write so well. I wish I could see some examples of the participants/winner. And I really like your encouraing closing paragraph! :) I always enjoy reading your blog posts.

    • Thank you. The winners are up on http://www.maybankphotoawards.com

      • Thanks for that Ming, a few insights that may be useful for anyone thinking of entering photographic competitions. Some lovely images there too! Interesting “People’s Choices”…stark contrast (no pun intended…well maybe just a little!) to those of the professional judges. An interesting insight into how laypeople respond to images as compared to photographers themselves.

        I think I would have been drawn to Muhamad Saleh Bin Dollah’s work also, being of a style/genre I enjoy (Joe McNally and Joey L’s work come to mind).

        • My pleasure. Actually, the people’s choices ran towards the pseudo-nudie pics, but they weren’t publishable in this country so we had to defer to the next few places down…

Trackbacks

  1. […] What also makes this year our biggest and most exciting year yet is the USD35,000 worth of prizes we’ll be awarding to the best photographers in Southeast Asia. If you’re new to the Awards and interested in participating this year, check out what Ming Thein, our returning Head Judge has to say about last year’s judging system here. […]

  2. […] probably have noticed the new banner on the right sidebar: following last year’s very successful Awards – nearly 20,000 entries and a couple of industry prizes for best campaign – Maybank are […]

  3. The MPA Blog says:

    […] What also makes this year our biggest and most exciting year yet is the USD35,000 worth of prizes we’ll be awarding to the best photographers in Southeast Asia. If you’re new to the Awards and interested in participating this year, check out what Ming Thein, our returning Head Judge has to say about last year’s judging system here. […]

  4. […] The Maybank Photography Awards is back for its second year and we can’t wait to get started! We’ve upped the ante this year with world-renowned judges and more categories to challenge you with. What also makes this year our biggest and most exciting year yet is the USD35,000 worth of prizes we’ll be awarding to the best photographers in Southeast Asia. If you’re new to the Awards and interested in participating this year, check out what Ming Thein, our returning Head Judge has to say about last year’s judging system here. […]

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