Watching, and learning from, POYi

POYi offers up to 300 people at a time the opportunity to listen to judging again this year, by logging in through the contest’s web site. More than 100 people sat in their digital armchairs and listened as the four judges debated Newspaper Photographer of the Year portfolios Friday afternoon. We saw the same screen the judges were looking at in the judging space at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. 

Viewers can also comment about the judging in a scrolling pane to the side of the screen. 

Most striking – in both judges’ and viewers’ comments – was the contrast in the work being favored. It was a tit for tat debate between a more literal, one dimensional approach to making pictures and one that is more stylized, more dimensional in its approach. 

It is the chasm across which salvos of disagreement are always fired in ruling on which are the best images. We as picture people tend to fall on one or the other side of the chasm. And so it was during the POYi judging.

World Press Photo of the Year raised the same debate. The merit of the purely lyrical image that judges recognized can’t be expressed with words. Its value stands alone as an image but is enhanced when words sit beside the image. At least that’s how I see it.

The same lyrical quality was the essence of many of the images in the second place portfolio that won Friday in POYi. The photographs are not straightforward representations of scenes. Two judges ripped a photo of a Coke can sitting in the cockpit of a military plane as it flew over Afghanistan as having no value in that second place portfolio. The caption was not apparent in the picture; the image’s reason to exist wasn’t literal; it was lyrical.

The top three winning portfolios present the range of what I’m talking about. First place falls on the high side of the middle of the literal/lyrical extremes and third place lands toward the literal side and second is at the lyrical extreme. So by looking at the three bodies of work, you can see the range of types of work being produced – and appreciated – by different camps.

I’ve sat in the judge’s chair at POYi for a total of five weeks over the years and I’ve watched judging several more times going back to my time in grad school at Missouri in 1986 and the same division has always existed.

But the dynamics of today’s visual environment are making this debate all the more pointed. Because of a drastically changing publishing climate, most people who make their living from photojournalistic images are redefining some or every aspect of their work. Efforts range from navel-gazing to outright panic.

As we sat in this digital living room and watched and cavorted with and pondered and booed and applauded the judging Friday, each of us was coming from our own space but we all fell on either side of the literal/lyrical taste spectrum. The opportunity is priceless.

Many thanks to Rick Shaw and Adobe for making the debate publicly possible.

Tension is good

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