I 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?All images were made using a Fuji GW690III camera and Kodak Portra 400 film