Monday, August 2, 2010

The eyes of the beholder: more on contests ...

1st place Feature Photo and Photo of the Year2009 Georgia AP Awards, Division A.

There's been another round of annual contest awards, and it might be worth further examining their significance, which I began to do in this post: The award is not the reward.

There are two main press associations in the state of Georgia that conduct annual contests: the Georgia Press Association and the Georgia Associated Press Association (this link is dated, but the best I could find.) The GPA contest is open to every newspaper in the state. The Georgia AP contest is open to members in the state who subscribe to the AP wire service, so many smaller papers are not represented. Both contest have this in common – they are broken down into divisions so that papers with similar circulations are competing against one another instead of with everyone in the state. The Statesboro Herald competes in the Division D (Circulation 8,000–under, daily newspapers) in GPA and in Division A (circulation 10,000–under) in Georgia AP. The Herald recently garnered 15 awards in the Georgia AP contest. Suffice to say, I'm very proud that my publication and my co-workers have been recognized.

On one level, I like the breakdown. It gives everyone an opportunity to be recognized for outstanding work. On the other hand, it allows almost every publication to designate itself as "award-winning." Personally, I wish they would add all-division awards for each award category because I think some of the smaller newspapers are doing journalism that measures up to what the larger organizations are producing. That's significant and that kind of  commitment and achievement should be recognized when it happens, considering the difference in resources between larger and smaller publications.

One of the most interesting aspects of these awards is comparing what stories and photographs are chosen in each of these concurrent contests. Sometimes the differences are striking because most newspapers submit the same bodies of work to both contests. It can provide a fascinating study and insight into what people consider to be outstanding journalism and photojournalism. While the public, in general, probably has wildly varying ideas about this, you can see that practicing journalists serving as contest judges have varying ideas, as well. Because of that, sometimes you have to take winning contests with a grain of salt. As a photojournalist, I am always honored by recognition, but sometimes I find winning selections curious.

The photo at the top of this post won First Place for Feature photo in Georgia AP. This was the photo that won First place for Feature photo in GPA:

First Place Feature photo in 2009 GPA contest, Division D.
First Place Sports Feature – 2009 Georgia AP

Both pictures failed to place at all in the corresponding contest. Similarly, in the Sports Action category, a Georgia AP first place winner failed to place in GPA while 2nd and 3rd place winners in GPA failed to place in Georgia AP. Further, Georgia AP 1st and 2nd place winners in Sports Feature failed to place in GPA, where a complete different picture placed 2nd.

Same group of pictures submitted. Completely different sets of values and sensibilities demonstrated by two sets of judges. It wasn't with just my photographs, either. The winners lists and selections varied wildly from one contest to another, although you could get a sense of what types of photographs some judges seemed to prefer.

Over the years, I've been able to sense when photographs are judged by fellow photographers and when reporters or editors who work primarily with words are making selections. It's actually pretty easy to tell, particularly in the feature photograph category. Writers are inevitably drawn to the cute, cuddly photographs – especially ones with kids and animals. Photographers tend to look for something else. Moments. Light. Composition. Symbolism. You can tell when judges appreciate the subtle things that make photographs memorable.

First Place Sports Action – 2009 Georgia AP

However, even when judges are among the most respected photojournalists in the business, personal values and taste come into play. If you get a chance, check out the web sites of the two most important photojournalism contests in our country: "The Best of Photojournalism" sponsored chiefly by National Press Photographers Association and the "Pictures of the Year" contest sponsored chiefly by the University of Missouri School of Journalism. The NPPA and Missouri once co-sponsored a single "Pictures of the Year" contest, and it's interesting to compare and contrast the results since the split a few years ago. Categories and breakdowns continue to diverge every year, and you can get a sense of differing philosophies.

The work of former Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler is an interesting study. His amazing and touching behind-the-scenes visual account of funerals for Colorado Marines who returned from Iraq in caskets in 2006 won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature photography that year. In the "Pictures of the Year" contest, the same work, split into two parts, yielded only a Third Place for Issue Reporting Picture Story and an Award of Excellence (an honorable mention) in the Newspaper News Picture Story category, but Heisler was honored with second place for Newspaper Photographer of the Year. The same body of work garnered him a First Place for Best Published Picture Story in the "Best of Photojournalism" contest, yet he was completely absent from the list of photographers considered for Photojournalist of the Year.

Ultimately, the presence of his work in all three contests speaks to its significance, but it also goes to show that recognition is highly dependent on a particular judging panel's standards.

About this 2009 Photo of the Year in Georgia AP Division A (also the top photograph) ...

It was a bit of a surprise, especially to the Herald's Publisher and Executive Editor. Of all the photographs I made in 2009, perhaps the most remembered is the one that took first place in the News Photograph category (in the Herald's division) of both state contests.

First Place General News, 2009 Georgia Press Association (Div. D). First Place Spot News, 2009 Georgia AP (Div. A).

Personally, I think it's the most important photograph I made during the year. When a far-away war touches us so personally, so intimately, folks take notice. Why the (perceived) snuff? Well, it can't hurt to try and get inside the judges' heads.

This is what the judges said about the Photo of the Year: "Great use of Light. Unique moment from what could have been a predictable event."

And I'm flattered by that comment. I cover numerous festivals every year, and it's a real challenge to produce photographs that don't look the same as the previous year ... and the year before that ... and so on.

Once, when asked about the artistic quality of his work, even when covering war or other horrific conditions, photojournalist James Nactwey said:

"I am not intending to create art but rather to create a profound human communication..."

While my primary role as a photojournalist is not to be an artist, sometimes I do try to create art. Sometimes life presents itself in unique moments. A certain quality of light, a moment, a composition come together that helps us examine common, even mundane facets of life in a new way. Certainly, to appreciate everyday life can be profound.

However, the photojouralist's role becomes even more important when life presents us with overtly profound moments. We try to make visual records of historic moments that help define us as a people and a community at particular points in time. I'll always feel the funeral of Georgia National Guard Sgt. Brock Chavers was one of those moments.

Again, to get inside the judges' heads ... they had to choose four Photos of the Year – one from each division. And, sadly (for our military families), there were several funerals in Georgia for soldiers who lost their lives overseas and many photographers who documented them. Perhaps they felt one of these photos was enough to represent all four divisions, and there were images that may have communicated the tragedy and loss more forcefully.

My photograph of grief is subtle. If you put it in a lineup with other funeral pictures, it probably wouldn't be the first to jump out at you. The photographs that depict loved ones wailing and crying are the ones that hit you in the gut and make you feel the loss more immediately. Some may actually prefer my photograph of the Chavers family for that very reason. It's difficult for many of us to be confronted, often graphically, with another's grief.

That's not why I'm proud of this photograph, however. What makes this photograph special, to me, is that it's their story. Brock Chavers' family. A military family's story of loss. Their dignity. Their quiet resignation and numb acceptance. A young boy's look of incomprehension.

That's the most important photograph I made in 2009. Does that make it the best photograph? The "Photo of the Year?"

I guess that's in the eyes of the beholder.

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