Veni, vidi, vinci. Who are the real winners?
(Disclaimer! The photo above was my entry in a well-known photographic portrait competition last year. I thought its clear feminist meta-text would see it romp home. It got nowhere.)
I try to keep up, I really do. But I am finding that whenever I register with a website or I sign on for a newsletter I become a target for invitations to enter photography competitions. There are even websites and blogs that will list them all for you. The deal in all the competitions is basically the same. You pay a certain amount (sometimes quite a lot, sometimes a little, occasionally nothing) and you send in either a single photo or a series. There may or may not be a theme. The judges are usually listed in the bigger competitions and are usually working in the photo industry in one way or another. I take a passing interest but often have not heard of them – which may just be my ignorance. I assume though that the judges will have some expertise in these matters. The hook for many of the comps. is that this is a uniquely good way to get your work “seen”: that is, seen by the public (the website will often show chosen images as the competition progresses) and seen by those industry insiders. So, even if you get nowhere, it is a way of building your name. Well, maybe.
But the one thing that always strikes me as odd is that there is very rarely any explanation of the criteria on which the judges will be making their decision. This is doubly odd when the competition is one in which the judges will be declaring “winners”. How can one photograph be better than another when no one explains what will be considered good in the first place? Adjective; comparative; superlative. Good, better, best. It’s a pretty simple progression.
It’s a bit like an organisation wanting to recruit but not setting out a job description or a person specification. They have a position they want to fill but they won’t say what the duties are and nor will they say what qualifications you need to do the job. “Just apply and we’ll take it from there.”
The unavoidable conclusion is that the organisers of the competition cannot say what they are looking for. “It’s hard to express in words but we know it when we see it” kind of thing. But, as anyone who has ever recruited for anything knows, if you don’t have criteria for your decision and you can’t show how the successful candidate fitted them you are wide open to claims of discrimination. And quite right, too.
If we apply that fairly simple principle to the photographic competition we come up with the same result. I’m not suggesting that the discrimination would be racial or sexual or any of the other proscribed legal categories. The cultural shading is much subtler than that. For example, the use of the category ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ is loaded with associations from the world of painting. Or there is the unspoken assumption that, to be considered, any particular photograph must have a quality capable of being judged. That is an assumption that the photographers will also hold and therefore both judgers and judged fish in the same pool. Those who fish in other pools – or who have no pool - are excluded. Nor will the judges have been trained in the business of judging. Excluding our own prejudices is a tricky business but it can be helped along. Even the legal system trains the judiciary in an attempt to reduce bias (as does Crufts, incidentally).
Just as in the law, the photography judges will be selected by reason of their expertise but their backgrounds will inevitably be freighted whether they are connoisseurs, academics, practitioners, curators or critics.
But there is another way of doing this. If a jury of twelve citizens can decide on a person’s guilt or innocence in a criminal trial – which is after all a much more serious affair - why shouldn’t a similar system be used to judge photographs? Jurors may have to be instructed in relevant areas of law but that could be equally well done in areas of photographic judgement. When all is said and done such judgements are all based on facts and principles: what do we look for in a photograph (principles) and how does this photo manifest those (factual)? It doesn’t have to be definitive but competitions could at least try to explain.
Otherwise, it’s just Miss World: the endless promotion of a tired concept for the gratification of a few.