How do you learn from photojournalism contests?

Early in my career, I remember looking at what photographs won in contests and I’d think, “Oh, that’s what makes a good photograph, I should do that.” Well, I was sort of right, but mostly wrong. One type of photograph would win in one contest and other types would win in other contests. So the takeaway of what is a good photograph was not so simple.

And learning from contests is not so simple as trying to mimic what wins, anyway.

Over time, I’ve seen that responding to what a set of judges chooses falls into several camps. Judges, like photographers, fall anywhere in the photographic spectrum.

Judges can tend to choose the simpler, one-plane, center-based, crop-to-the-edge-of-what’s-happening type of photography that typifies newspapers, or they can lean toward a more dimensional approach to making pictures typified by photographers such as those who are members of Magnum and VII and Noor, Luceo and more successful art photographers.

They can choose stories that execute simple beginning/middle/end approaches or ones that have huge aesthetics or they can choose moment driven, complex imagery that connects deeply with a subject. Or some of all of the above.

How do you know which type of photography is being recognized by a given contest? The answer is the same one to the question of “Which contest do you most often agree with what wins? The answer will tell you as much about your approach to photography as it does about contests.

Who the judges are makes the difference, then. Of course. Former POYi Director Bill Kuykendall used to say that he determined who would win when he chose the judges.

How do you determine the level of judging? You have to do more than determine whether the judges agree with your opinions. Blasting, or praising, judges’ decisions just because you agree, or disagree, with them has no merit.

The ideal is that you can listen to the reasoning, hear the discussion. That was the great benefit of POYi live streaming its judging. What a gift. Does what the judges say jibe with the images they’re talking about. For instance, someone can herald an image as being complex and you look at the image as being very simple. Or a judge can hold up a set of photographs as literal story telling when to you the photographs may be lyrical.

Listen long enough and you get a sense of where that judge is coming from. We all prefer a certain range of photography. Figuring out what type of photography a judge prefers is the first step to learning from listening to them. Understanding how to talk about photography is a critical skill. And again, there’s a huge difference between simply disagreeing with what is said and learning from how it’s said.

You can get a sense of where judges were on the spectrum just from looking at results. Look at the POYi sports category, for instance. What was awarded in all but the recreational sports category (bravo, Rick Shaw, for creating that category) largely fell in the sideline photographer realm. Photos were mostly aesthetically edgy, graphically interesting, peak action but didn’t reach very far into the life of sports. They didn’t tell stories about athletes and sport so much as they were photographic impressions, generally made from the same perspective as a spectator - with the exception of two of the feature picture stories that got lesser awards.

So if you favor a moment-driven, deep into the life of athletes approach to sports photography, you were probably disappointed by that hierarchy. If you favor the more aesthetic-driven, peak action approach, then you were probably happy with the results.

World Press awarded some of the same stories in its sports stories category but the order, the hierarchy, was different. See for yourself.

Is there greater value in one type of approach to telling stories over the other? Both are valid, of course. But there’s definitely a difference. Contests offer the opportunity to understand the difference, to learn which perspective is being put forth and to grasp the language of photography more deeply.

And if your work wins, then the judges must be divinely guided.