I’ve been doing it all wrong!

I recently posted my thoughts on how to win more club competitions by considering the judging process in more depth and in particular, looking at what typically does and doesn’t do well. Does this process work for me? Well, truthfully, no as I simply don’t enter competitions with anything less than something I love and that is often going to be at odds with what I know a club judge is going to like. I care about what a judge thinks of course, indeed I care about what all of you think about my photography but not so much as to change my mind as to what I will or won’t enter into a competition.

So recently, I have begun to rethink my strategy on photography and in particular whether entering competitions has any real merit for me personally or whether I should just concentrate on projects and doing what I mostly enjoy, which is reportage, candid photography and street portraiture.

The image above, without doubt one of my all time favourites, is from a trip to France from a couple of years back. It is a shinning example of how the judges dialog can be totally at odds with the end result of the judging process. Now, I don’t so much mind the comments I get from judges with regards the technical elements of my images, these are often valid points as anyone who has taken a candid shot on the spur of the moment will generally tell you. The opportunity for perfection in such cases is practically zero after all. What I do find amusing though is that when judges are faced with something outside of their comfort zone, where they struggle to apply their normal rules, that they have to resort to slight of hand to make a coherent appraisal of what is before them. Honest and blunt judges quite often just say, “nope, didn’t get it, don’t like it” so at least you know that it’s a bust. Judges who do not like to offend will use other tactics but effectiveley, they are saying the same thing.

Now, this image is typical of my photography and so are the comments it received. The judging comments went something like, and this is from memory, “I don’t know if the photographer meant to create a 40’s style image but if they did then clearly, they nailed it. I particularly like the b&W treatment here, it gives it an art-noir feel, authentic of reportage photography from that period. The image also makes you wonder who this guy is, a waiter perhaps (good guess that one) or an office worker on a break. I wonder actually if it’s a staged shot (it wasn’t). Technically, I don’t mind the subject being very slightly out of focus, it adds to the ambience of the shot and the dark background really focuses the eye on the subject. Overall, a great image, well seen and well handled in post”. Now, you’ll note the lack of any real negativity in these comments and I remember thinking at the time, this one’s a winner. I waited espectantly for the magic words “and we’ll hold that one” but sadly, as all too often, they never came. This is quite typical of photos which slip outside of the box with regards the comfort zone of a particular judge.

As yet, I have never met a judge on the club circuit who likes and specialises in documentary photography, other than one of our own members who judges internally and who is a member of the contemporary group at the RPS. His understanding of documentary photography in particular is extraordinarily broad and he has influenced me enourmously over the past few years. He is however, unique as the vast majority of judges I have met, while highly proficient in their own fields, judge much more conservatively and the results often indicate that they are following well defined rules of what good club photography has to look like. Should I be disillusioned or disappointed then when my images bomb? Well, disappointment is a human traite as it’s never easy hearing a negative critique about something you feel passionately about. However here, there was nothing negative in the points being made so there was an expectation, incorrect as it was, that the judge liked it enough to place it. What this image did do though is to raise the questions as to what I should expect from competition and club judging and whether in reality I was going to let this have any impact on my particular style. In truth, it didn’t and while I have entered a few “mildly sanitised images” into competitions since then, this image is from 2018, I haven’t moved too far from my personal perspective of what makes a good image rather than what makes a good club image. I feel that these two things are somewhat at odd’s with each other.

In summary, I think that as photographers we are looking for some form of acceptance, whether that is gaining likes from posting on Instagram or Facebook or entering and winning competitions. We are born of an age where likes equal value and this all too often pushes us in directions other than where we had hoped to go. For some of us though, photographing and making something interesting from the mundane and ordinary is what marks our work as purposeful and this can and often often does lead to sometihng exceptional.

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