To photography competition entrants

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“…we who are about to die, salute you!”

Whoops, wrong scene, wrong side of the dock.

I’ve been on the judging panel for a few competitions this year – and on discussion with fellow judges, found we were encountering the same things across not only different competitions, but different geographies. Today’s post is intended to be a little behind the scenes guidance on what makes an image stand out to a jury, and hopefully win you a prize. It is of course impossible to turn this into a formula: the very nature of competition means that the benchmarks shift every year, and so does the whole idea of ‘different’. There’s so little QC these days it’s almost easier to judge competitions by people who don’t mess up than those who excel; that said, there are fortunately still a few who manage to surprise us. Read on for the breakdown.

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Curation, judging and objectivity

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Let’s start with three critical thoughts for any photographer: 1. You cannot show what you have not shot. 2. What gets seen is only what you choose to show. 3. What you choose reflects you as much as what you shoot. The more I think about it, the more I think what differentiates a really great photographer from a mediocre one – at least the perception of greatness – are their curation choices. I’ve written about curation in the past but not said that much about the criteria I use to determine in or out – that’s the purpose of today’s post.

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Judging the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards

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.

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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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved