CPOY 67: Photos, Videos and Animal Crackers.

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Out. Out. Out. IN!”  The familiar sounds of CPOY took precedence over all other activities (including classes) this past week for the photojournalism department in it’s 67th year.  Because my experience has been limited with the competition in the past, I was looking forward to attending at much of the judging rounds as my schedule allowed. After observing the judges at work for several rounds of voting, what struck me most this year compared to last year’s competition, was the range of agreement and disagreement between the judges perceptions of the photos and my own understanding of what makes a “good” photo.  Moreover, my appreciation for this year’s contest was also greatly influenced by the mock judging in which I participated as part of the graduate component for the Photo Story and Picture Essay class, and the brief interview with Wally Skalij on how to conduct a photo story.

Photojournalism is both an art and a science.  Photographers use engineered technology to produce works of art that communicate their vision.  However, the evaluations of photographs is often both an objective and subjective process.  This was particularly difficult for me to come to terms with during both during the mock and actual judging of the Illustrated, General News and Documentary categories.  Playing the role of the judge I felt myself settle into character once the green and red buttons were placed in my hand, and as the photos began to flick across the screen I realized how important my snap-second decisions were.  With hundreds of photos to sort through, a judge must within a matter of seconds determine the quality of the shot presented to them, taking into consideration, color, light, composition, appropriateness of categorization, without the benefit of a caption in the first round.  This was especially difficult for me in the Illustration category because I am not as familiar with Illustration as with a more news or story oriented category.  If Rick Shaw had read the description of the category before-hand, I would have felt more confident in my decisions. Pressed for time, however, I relied mostly upon my understanding of what makes a quality illustration.  Many of them I wanted to know more, and I was surprised by how much the caption made a difference in my attitude toward a picture.

The role of the caption in photo competitions has always been something I wrestled with.  On the one handI feel a good picture can stand on it’s own, as it should have all the storytelling elements a caption would provide.  This is something I’ve heard from many professional photographers and editors in the field; the great photos provide the most information beautifully.  Moreover, if a photo is less superior than others in the competition, should it’s merit be based upon caption information which might place it higher in rank? For myself, during the mock judging, the captions made a significant difference in my attitude toward certain photos.  If the caption implied the thoughtfulness and intentionality of the photographer I was more inclined to vote “in.”  If I sensed little direction or purpose I wasn’t willing to fight for that photo.  For example, knowing the background on the human doll which spoke to the pressure young girls feel to be beautiful, increased my understanding and appreciation for the image.   The judges this year also appeared to rely heavily on captions to inform their decisions.  During the General News session, the photo that would win second place, rose above others due in part to the caption information, that told the judges the situation had been planned, referring to a local organization that helps the poor of Kyrgyzstan.  Captions were also a significant factor in the Documentary category, in which more information provided depth and context to particular images.

As Tatiana, Gan Yi, Carrie and I continued sorting through the photos in Illustrated, I also began to understand just how much concentration it takes to be a judge.  After the first thirty or forty images I found myself going into a sort of daze, where I was no longer as intently focused on the image, moving through the motions of hitting out, out, out.  When I realized I hadn’t been paying the close attention each deserved while voting I panicked.  Luckily safety nets have been set in place, such as returning to the “outs” before moving onto the next round, that prevent any potential winners from slipping through the cracks.

I loved seeing what came through in the multimedia categories.  There were some inventive pieces that inspire me in my own work, and it was clear, as the judges began separating the videos, which would rise above the rest.  The multimedia pieces that stood out were beautifully sequenced and smart about the context and imagery, but it was often the minor details that would distinguish the winners from the losers, just as with photos.  In multimedia this almost always came down to audio and storyline. One criteria that a work needed to fulfill was to reach the “plot” or problem of the story quickly. Just as with a photo story, a multimedia piece needs to be driven forward with strong pacing and a beginning, middle and end.  Long or repetitive audio that provides no new information detracted heavily from stories, and in many of the winning multimedia the plot was introduced in an interesting way to avoid stating the problem in an obvious way.  This was especially true of “Wright’s Law” and “A Beautiful Waste,” that made the viewer go “aha!”  The most exciting part of the video is made even more interesting through placement.  However, if it takes too long to reach that point, the viewer’s attention and interest wanes.

The elements of storytelling in the multimedia category also apply to well-done photo stories.  This was evident in the Documentary category, where entrants demonstrated projects executed over a long periods of time.  There still needed to be some kind of beginning, middle and end or closer.  Though it didn’t necessarily have to be a story in the same sense as the multimedia pieces, it did need to flow through nice sequencing, show variety of angles and places and demonstrate some kind of interpretation by the photographer.  Each image also needed to be able to stand on its own, yet fit well within the context of the story.  For Wally Skalij, the photo of the house in the winning documentary hurt the overall story, though they all thought it was an excellent body of work.  It was an easy shot to show environment and Wally was hoping for something with more depth or meaning, that could have been provided by simply waiting for the main subject to walk into the frame. “Find a moment, pull back and get a little more context,” said Wally, “That’s the difference between winning and losing.”

In my interview with Wally I asked what he thought was missing overall from this category, and for both him and Kurt it had been the lack of strong images.  While he thought the story content had been really good for the Documentary category, the images weren’t there to support it.  The judges had found the opposite to be true, however, for International picture story.  He also discussed the work it takes to find the right story as the documentary photographers had done.  “Research,” he said.  At the L.A. times, weeks of planning can go into a project before a camera is ever picked up, and when the time finally comes to begin shooting, Wally progresses slowly with the subject, especially if the nature of the topic is sensitive, as with the gold and silver winners of Documentary. Access was key to making the stories as strong as they were and trust is essential to gaining that access.  Wally works slowly with his subjects and stated that, for him, it’s necessary to be receptive to the subject, but also to open up about who he is and his intentions with the project.  The call to transparency is something I had heard echoed in the talks of other photographers, such as Jodi Cobb and Andre Pungovschi, and is something I continue to strive for in my own work.  The more the subject understands what you, as a photographer, are looking for, the more often they are willing to cooperate and open their lives to your work, and this openness will always be the most important part of a photographer’s job.

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