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Creating images that last beyond the day has been Mike’s mission in settings as diverse as National Geographic magazine, The White House, several books, various newspapers and even pdxcross.com…

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If clichés are so bad, why do they win contests?

A photographer asked: “If cliches are so bad, why do so many of them win contests?”

Good question.

Having just judged photos that were entered in the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar contest, it was astounding how many commonly photographed subjects were entered - especially stories about sick children. The standing quintessential cliché is children running through sprinklers. Stories about children in hospitals are almost as common as sprinkler photos once were.

Yet, several such stories have won Pulitzers in the past few years. And the Pulitzer, for a lot of people, is the king of contests. (Not for me.)

I think one of the dynamics at play is that work that was recognized in the past triggers interest in similar work in the present. In other words, we have this library of images in our minds and when we see images that are similar to the images that we think are great, there’s an association, a connection that is positive. These are derivative images. But instead of being a negative aspect, these images get elevated, often to the highest awards and often without realizing we’re just awarding what worked in the past.

That’s the nature of the cliché: I’m photographing a subject that was deemed good in the past, therefore the photo I make today will also be good. As a judge, the perspective is: This type of photo has been recognized in the past, therefore we should recognize it today.

This tends to happen with a given subject (sick children, for instance) until enough people get tired of seeing the subject and realize it’s like "kids in sprinklers" became in the 1970’s. Not that people stopped entering photos of kids in sprinklers in contests.

And, not to say that you should never make a picture of a child who is sick. It’s a universal subject that every parent deals with, to one degree or another. It is this universality that makes people respond to such stories. Yet most of these stories are about extremely rare diseases, as if the rarity creates freshness in the story. How a parent deals with a child having a cold would be a fresh take, if the specific story had dynamics.

How do you go beyond what’s been done; how do you exceed the cliché? I wrote about this aspect before on this site, but the essence is that you first have to know whether you’re touching a clichéd subject. Then you should look up every story you can find that has been done on the subject and ask yourself if you are somehow breaking new ground, if not in the subject itself, then either in the uniqueness of your story or in the way you’re telling the story.

That is, only if you’re interested in making unique pictures.

Reader Comments (9)

Mike, I wonder if it has become impossible to make unique photographs in a world that's been flooded with imagery? Cliche's have always been an easy, reliable and generally successful fallback option for most photographers. As you've written, human interest stories trigger familiar and reliable emotional connections / responses. Bringing a fresh perspective to a scene that's been seen a thousand times before requires thought, planning and sensitivity. A little bit of serendipity never hurts either...

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEli Reichman

About my series, "Point & Shoot @70MPH"

Road trips are the thing of legends. Documenting road trips has become cliché.
Think of all of those Route 66 photos; abandoned gas stations, derelict cars at the side of the road, ordinary "folks" sipping malts through a straw at the local drugstore. Porches with swings, empty porches, clothes lines with dancing frocks, an abandoned toy tractor overturned in a scrappy yard. American flags everywhere, a few Confederate ones in certain locales. BBQ stands with folks lined up, spilling out onto the street, old movie marquees displaying "Easy Rider". This is the "real" America, the authentic as depicted in so many photographs.

The freeways, the Interstates are cold and without heart, bypassing all of those small towns helping to turn downtowns into ghost towns as Pilot's, and Flying J's sprout at exits to convey gasoline, diesel, soda/chips/coffee. Now bananas are making an appearance as homage to "fresh and natural".

But the freeways/Interstates transverse spectacular scenery, much of it void of towns and car dealerships. There are farmhouses and barns, often at quite a distance and cows, but mostly open, native America to be glimpsed between the billboards announcing the next exit's offerings. This is the America I am sharing through my photo-bases images taken from a moving car's passenger window.

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Jantzen

The problem is not only with the photographers doing the same project over and over again. The problem also exists with the judges who choose that work as a winner. So often I have seen editors' prejudices get in the way of evaluating new work that might challenge their 'tried and true' formulas for selecting a winner. After all, what competition judge wants to risk selecting new, challenging, and refreshing material only to have others comment back 'What was this guy thinking?'

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergene lowinger

Hi Mike,

I agree with you that as photographers we should seek out new angles. I think the onus here though should be on the judges of photo contests (rather than the photographer) to use their expert knowledge to look past the clichés and award on breaking new ground rather than following the herd. Of course the photographer can play on cliches ironically.

What is interesting is your theory also explains why algorithms like Flickr explore pull up cliches all the time as in the case here the algorithm is based on the community, which dilutes experts knowledge with the layman's and so once again the cliché is king.

December 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiletbaker

'If clichés are so bad, why do they win contest?'

Well - juries like clichés.

Your blog post is interesting and made me ponder quite a lot - although I'm missing the word 'subjectivity' somewhere in there. A contest does not prove anything beyond showing what a certain majority of people likes to look at. The title question clearly hints to a conclusion like: 'If a photograph wins a contest, then it must be a good photograph.' Simply not true.

December 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBjarte Edvardsen

you should care with empathy about the people involved. if you are busy contemplating whether this subject is breaching new ground so you can win a prize you are caring about yourself and using the sick children for your own good. that's a cliché in itself right there.
the stories that win the good prizes usually originate from true interest and this defindes the quality of the pictures.
this is only an assumption. i don't follow contests. i just take pictures of people i really care about. it's the only way it works for me.
cheers, ruedi

December 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterruedi

I believe that best photographers are the ones who captured their great subjects at the most unexpected moment. You don't have to seek for many different angles to produce good photos. Maybe this is the reason why cliche photos commonly win in contests.

- Dylan

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrochure Printing

And how about sports photography... the shots that are valued b/c they are captured in the split second when the football pile up occurs and the guy with the ball on the bottom of the heap has the scrunched up face, year after year after year, what better example of a cliche image? The lack of judgement by jurors is extraordinary. If it was high school photo editors judging these contests, it would make sense because this would be the first time they would be seeing these shots but for old pros to keep finding these shots prizeworthy? There is nothing "unexpected' about these moments, they WILL happen at football games sooner or later whether in H.S. or college or pro games. But they keep winning year and year. Given this, why do we give have a sports category?

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVivian Ronay

I don't know what contests you look at VIvian. There's a sports category to recognize images like this: http://bop.nppa.org/2011/still_photography/winners/?cat=SPA and this: http://bop.nppa.org/2011/still_photography/winners/?cat=SPA&place=2nd and this: http://bop.nppa.org/2011/still_photography/winners/?cat=SPA&place=3rd
and this: http://bop.nppa.org/2010/still_photography/winners/?cat=SPA&place=1st
and this: http://bop.nppa.org/2010/still_photography/winners/?cat=SPA&place=2nd
and this: http://bop.nppa.org/2010/still_photography/winners/?cat=SPA&place=3rd
nary a scrunched up ball carrier's face amongst the lot. I could post more but everyone's capable of doing their own looking.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGuy Reynolds

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