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.