I wrote this piece after helping to judge, most recently, the competition run by the Italian magazine, Asferico. Published in Outdoor Photography. © Niall Benvie 2009.
From time to time I am invited to join the juries of international photo competitions, most recently the one run by the Italian nature photo magazine, Asferico. Theses are always good fun, if demanding in terms of concentration. By the time I arrived in Budoia to join my German colleague and Wild Wonders of Europe Director, Florian Möllers, the Italian members of the jury had already whittled the initial entry down to 3554 pictures. The six of us had just a day and a half to sort out the winners. If you are keen on entering, perhaps it’s helpful to understand how the process works in this and other competitions.
The first thing to appreciate is that there is often passionate disagreement between judges about what merits progression to the next round. In the first round, so long as two or more of the jury said “yes”, a picture went through to the second– and even then there was sometimes a good deal of debate. What was more predictable, however, was the reaction when certain subjects and themes appeared on screen: Hepaticas; bears in Finland; sea eagles in Norway; Antelope Canyon; creatively blurred tree trunks; Mesa Arch at dawn; bee eaters in Spain; Japanese macaques; lynx, bears or wolves from the Black Forest; Japanese cranes; Namibian sand dunes and grey seals from Donna Nook were, almost without exception, sure to elicit a weary groan. These subjects appear over and over again in competitions and I am at a loss to understand why photographers continue to submit them. But perhaps this gut reaction needs to be questioned: should the pictures not be judged only against others in that competition rather than against similar – or better- ones the judges have seen elsewhere? If not, the effective “entry” in any competition is the actual number of images submitted, plus all the others the judges have previously seen of these subjects. That’s a tough challenge!
I also wonder about the logic of prohibiting the entry of the winning pictures from other competitions. Naturally, it is in the interests of the organisers to have an unseen set of pictures to publish. But in cinema, for instance, a film that wins a BAFTA isn’t precluded from winning an Oscar too. Indeed, it would be a better measure of the merit of a photograph if it could win prizes in several major competitions. The result of this almost universal restriction is that photographers may be more inclined to hold back their best work for the most prestigious competitions – and only a tiny amount of the body of exceptional work being produced at any one time will be seen in the competitive arena.
Once we had narrowed down each category to the last 40 or so from which first, second, third and another eight highly commended would be chosen, the hard bargaining began. One picture in particular polarised opinions. The shot featured a reflected tree, framed with fallen leaves just below the water’s surface. The “right way round”, it was just another nice reflection, but upside down – as the photographer had presented it to the competition – it was a captivating, surreal landscape. Several jury members insisted that it should be judged the right way round; I took the view that we should respect the photographer’s intention and that if he or she was visually astute enough to see the potential of the inverted image, that should be credited. I look forward to seeing how the picture is printed in the book of the competition!
Once we were down to the last dozen in each category, it was time to look at the RAW files, a process that immediately brought about a few disqualifications. The line between enhancement (improving what is there already) and manipulation (making up things that weren’t there in the first place), is ill-defined but when the atmosphere of a picture had been changed completely in post production, it was judged no longer to be an objective record of the photographers experience.
And so we come to the sticky territory of creativity and interpretation in “nature photography”. Dress it up as they may, none of the main competitions yet tolerate anything other than pretty tired forms of interpretation such as blurring, artificial lighting or straight black and white photography. If you want to present two or three images together as a single piece of work, add text, tint or put edge effects round a picture to create a particular feel, use a Liittschwager-and- Middleton-style field studio or do a James Balog composite, your entry can’t be considered. You could argue with some justification that in a world bursting with artifice, insincerity and excessive self-expression, the traditional objectivity of nature photography where the photographer remains firmly in the background is no bad thing. But sometimes these more contemporary expressions favour the subject, present it in a way more likely to engage interest than has become possible through traditional representations. They should at least be seen and judged.
Perhaps what every entrant wants to know is this: what sort of picture makes a winner? Before assisting with the Asferico competition, I had an answer in mind and tested it at every stage of the judging. I believe that we awarded the overall prize to a picture that does what a winner should do (see http://www.asferico.com/ embargoed until 4th April 2008) : move the photography of that subject to the next level in terms of its narrative and expressive content; to break new ground rather than merely cultivate an even finer tilth in an already over-worked field; and by default, to reveal the inadequacy of earlier accounts of the subject. This isn’t necessarily a conscious process; but you, and the judges, will know when you have produced a winner.
Don’t forget to enter the new British Nature Photography Awards! http://www.bwpawards.org/