The Eye of The Beholder

PK080615002256-1I entered a photography competition once – the NME Music Photographer of the Year Awards 2011. My six submitted images of The Vaccines, The Charlatans frontman, Tim Burgess, and the Japanese Acid Punk band, Bo Ningen secured me a second place out of over two hundred entries in the professional category. That was the first photography competition I’ve ever entered – I was more than happy with the runner-up position as I’d only entered because a musician friend told me I should. But, to be honest, I’ve never liked photography competitions and haven’t entered another since.

Portrait photography is so subjective, so individual and complex that I have no idea how it can be judged. My case in point is The Taylor Wessing Portrait Photography Award. It’s one of the world’s most prestigious, if not the most prestigious, portrait competition – but how do they decide the winners? It can’t be on technical skill alone, because I’ve seen shortlisted portraits that barely transcend the mediocre. So then, it must have something to do with the subject matter itself? Winning and shortlisted entries have included a young, red-haired lady in a white doctors coat cradling a guinea pig; a woman eating breakfast whilst casually parting her legs to expose her genitals; and a Muslim gentleman, standing in a field, holding a weather balloon… I like all three images, they’re all technically and compositionally excellent, and they all invite their own unique interpretation and back-story.

So who decides on the “winner”? Well, the decision comes down to the preference of one person – even when the judging is performed by a small panel, it’s still usually an individual opinion that will tip the scale one way or the other. I honestly don’t understand how one ‘perfectly exposed/composed’ portrait of a complete stranger can be better than another?

I’m not saying that photography competitions, per se, are a bad idea… The World Press Association and Wildlife Photographer of the Year annual awards certainly separate the wheat from the chaff. But, portrait awards? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s my inherent fear of rejection that stops me submitting my work to be judged, but I just don’t think we can quality categorise, or even interpret, something that is as diverse as humanity itself. Or can we?PK080615002254-7PK270515002166-1All images were made using a Fuji GW690III camera and Kodak Portra 400 film


  1. True. I remember entering a Photo Marathon event hosted by a (cough cough) major camera maker. The concept was simple, walk around a busy area (in India), shoot frames (no editing allowed except what you can manage or is allowed on your camera) and come back, submit and wait for the judgment. Themes: Tranquility and Chaos.

    The winning entries comprised of frames that were staged and composed with props that were used by the participants as opposed to what was available – which is the fleeting moment. The judges were a fashion photog, a wedding lifestyle photog.

    And the better of the lot that won consolation prizes as opposed to being on the top.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phil I’ve both entered and judged photography competitions and frankly, judging is much harder. I don’t see an issue with judging portraits. They are the same as landscapes, wildlife or anything else. We photographers find s subject an attempt to interpret it in our own vision. Judging that vision is hard because if you don’t get it as a judge who’s fault is it? The photographer’s lack of skill in communicating, or the judge’s lack of ability in seeing what is being communicated?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I have a problem with that too. Each artist has a take on what is good; I don’t stand a chance. We do have professional photographers organizations. One of their ways of judging is the best I have seen. The judges are photographers of high merit. Six judges are used. Each of the judges score the photo according to how they feel it merits. If the ratings of the judges are too wide there is an automatic re-scoring. This is the good part (there is a silent audience). During the re-scorings (all the audience hears everything) all of the judges give reasons for their scores. They then discuss and try to sway the others to their reasoning. When they are finished, they will vote again. If the scores are still too wide, they will discuss it again (This goes on until they are within the boundaries. On top of this, any judge who does not like the score may ask for (and get) a re-scoring. This may happen after any scoring that was not a re-score situation, and also after a number of re-scorings. [During the first scoring everything is silent. The judges judge; if within margins the score is broadcast. If there is an auto or requested re-score . . . ]


  4. I think photography is subjective and there will always be an element of what the judge (s) lean towards naturally with their eye, whether it is a conscious thing or not. Some images just resonate with you, some don’t. I am often baffled why some images are included in some of the more well known exhibitions of work, such as Taylor Wessing and the BP Portrait Awards – I know this is painting not photography – but for arguments sake – the same thing. I once remember being astounded that a completely OTT photo-shopped image had been included (flying fish or something bizarre) in the Taylor Wessing line up. I felt cheated. Just like I feel cheated when I see a portrait painted and its all “abstract” like a four year old had created it. The same goes for some photographers who have won prestigious awards for some of their work, which I love, and some of their other work, for me, is absolute shit, but because they have status – people rave about it. For me, some images connect with me – the photographer has captured the moment, or I’m envious because I wish I had created it, or I just Iove the way the light is falling and couldn’t care less about the composition of the image. So in answer to your question Phil……yes I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we just have to hope the (judge) beholder doesn’t wear name tag blinkers.


  5. Phil, I do agree with you there doesn’t always seem to be an easily understood logic to that competition, never mind some of the others. I do wonder though that even though its based on one image, actually its really based on the images’ context to the rest of the body of work it comes from: the balloon image I’m guessing is from “empire” and that as an example as a whole is an outstanding series and book. So by itself a great portrait is just that, a great portrait.
    See, there you go, you need to do a book. When is the Alaska series coming out as a book?…….


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