One of the winning images from photographer of the year, Yaman Ibrahim.
Sometimes, choice can make life difficult. A couple of weeks ago, five judges and I sat down (virtually, since everybody was in different parts of the world) to decide on the category and overall winners for the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards. I had the privilege of working with Raghu Rai from Magnum; Mike Yamashita from National Geographic; Jim Liaw and Manny Librodo. Submissions closed on 31 October after three months, with a grand total of nearly 70,000 entries from 9 ASEAN countries. Shortlisting these down to approximately 1,500 final contenders was a panel of secondary judges, with myself overseeing.
Winning images and detailed results may be viewed here at the Maybank Photo Awards website.
I’ve got some general observations I’d like to share before talking about the individual categories. It seems unfortunate that a number of really outstanding images had to be disqualified because the submitters didn’t pay attention to either the category they were entering, or the overall theme of the competition: an abstract image with no local cues and a lot of generic subjects does not say Asia, let alone inspiring it. Similarly, you’d expect people who spend their professional careers – and no doubt a good portion of their lives – photographing would produce the strongest images; they didn’t. The studio pros went all out with the retouching and DI, but lagged behind on the creative portion and the translation of idea to image. The press category…let’s just say the entries needed help.
Though there were a few outstanding press entries, the majority either exhibited a lack of care, a lack of vision, or an implicit dependence on an editor to weed out the mediocre shots and identify the few remaining good ones. The images that were pictorially strong and moving – those that told a story, had integrity, and more than that, grit – were unfortunately also very depressing and centred around themes of war, destruction and natural disaster. Hope, curiously was mostly missing. (There were also an inexplicable number of entries containing sulfur miners in Indonesia; I suppose there was a sponsored junket at some point.) In a repeat of last year, the judges honestly felt that this was the most mediocre category of all – this is consistently surprising, since these were perhaps the only group of people with a consistent pipeline of new subject matter to work with – and subject matter that’s often both newsworthy, socially significant and inspiring.
Portraiture, on the other hand, was perhaps the best of the other categories: it’s a very difficult category to interpret in the context of the competition theme without appearing too cliched. Sometimes – as I learned with an earlier photo set I printed – it’s important not to underestimate the importance of local context; making excessive assumptions of the knowledge of the viewer tends to result in weaker images. However, I’m pleased to say that wedding and Twilight-themed studio work aside, the portrait category had some of the more creative interpretations; we saw photographs that were inspiring in themselves, and photographs of people that clearly inspired the photographer beyond the simple motive of making the image.
Street photography has burgeoned in recent years, I suspect partially due to accessibility as much as the increasing popularity of the genre in popular media and online. It’s also something that’s very open-ended and easy to get into for an amateur photographer. This also meant that we had a huge variety of images, from semirandom snapshots to those verging on the documentary. The winner we selected was something perhaps a bit cliched but also a bit different from the conventional vein of street photography; both Raghu and I felt that there was a metaphor here: Asia on the move? As a region undergoing constant change, driven by its people? With slightly vague definition? We can of course only hope that this was the intention of the photographer to begin with.
Asia has a wide variety of flora and fauna, which is perhaps why we were surprised that there weren’t more animal entries beyond the now-cliched running bulls of Bromo; it seems that it’s also a very Asian thing to submit similar images to winners of previous competitions in the hope that they’d win again. Newsflash: the image originally won because it stood out from the rest. I think this category was somewhat confusing to entrants as we can easily go from animal/ plant (small-scale) to adding mid-scale landscape context, to adding large-scale location context – and suddenly we’ve got a landscape. The category was deliberately left open to the interpretation of the photographer so as not to limit creativity. I deferred to Mike Yamashita’s expertise on this one, not being a nature photographer myself. Personally, I thought some of the landscapes were excellent, too – if perhaps not quite as challenging to access as our eventual winner.
The most ‘obvious’ category matching the competition theme would unquestionably be culture and heritage. Entries ran the whole gamut of cultural cliches from blink-and-you’ll miss it subtle to in-your-face posed. We felt the most important thing was that the image feel authentic – even if it was staged. That authenticity is difficult to define, but is perhaps best characterised as ‘believability’ – it’s the difference between the Universal Studios theme park move set of New York and the real New York, if you know what I mean. Since there were simply so many of these images, having a unique composition and perspective became even more important to distinguish the winner from the competition.
Personally, one of the biggest things I took away from the competition is that subjectivity goes far beyond the small gamut of what we’d expect; certainly all of the judges had their own preconceptions about the kinds of images that we should be seeing under the theme of ‘inspiring Asia’. Even if one consciously goes in with an open mind, then you’d still be surprised by the possible latitude of interpretation in the submitted images; imposing our own expectations would not only be unfair, but I suspect that our own personal/ experimental work might well not survive the firing squad before a complete layman jury. It is therefore important to when we evaluate images to ask oneself whether the essence of the image might be interpreted as Asian both to somebody who lives there, as well as the general viewing public – whom might not, but might have ideas as to what ‘Asian’ means. In this case, I think it’s both the audience who both interprets and dictates the meaning of the theme – Asia is represented by its people, and if they believe that location wedding portraits, movie-inspired portraits, cats, hipstagram filters, mating insects, bikini girls, running bulls and (just some of the commonly repetitive themes we saw this year) are the flavour of the season – who are we to disagree?
You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about the biggest category yet: Photographer of The Year. There were surprisingly few participants who were shortlisted in multiple categories; we opened it up to entrants with images that made the cut in two or more categories, with weighting given to the overall breadth and diversity of the portfolio, as well as how well that portfolio fit the theme. We’d like to have seen even more diversity from individuals overall; however there was one photographer who stood out from the competition. He was able to to compose and visualize well and execute cleanly, and moreover has the potential to go much further by injecting a little more individual flavour or unique style to his images.
Perhaps it would be best to finish with a few pointers for future entrants.
1. Make sure you enter your images into the correct category, and that they are at least remotely related to the overall theme of the competition.
2. Don’t shoot what you think the judges might like; there are lots of us and we will always have dissenting opinions – there were many intense but productive discussions amongst ourselves in the course of trying to find a winner. Instead, think carefully about the theme and shoot your interpretation of it – ensure that the execution is sufficiently robust to convey your idea, though.
3. Don’t leave it until the very last moment to enter. It must be an Asian thing – we had such high volumes of submissions in the final hours that things got slow, simply because of technical limitations.
4. If you don’t enter, you can’t win. Fill your quota of images.
Congratulations to the winners, and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2014 brings. MT
The full gallery of winners and finalists may be viewed here on the official Maybank Photo Awards website.
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