Judging – February 10, 2016

28 02 2016

I remember one particular image that I entered into a photographic competition in Toronto. It was a photograph of a flower, and I had used a shallow depth of field to create what I hoped would be an attractive, dreamy image. The judges’ scores (out of 10) were 8, 9 and… 5. And this was at a club where the “base” score was, by tradition, a 6! All of these individuals were experienced photographers, had received judging training from the Greater Toronto Consortium of Camera Clubs, and had been judging for many years. While I was surprised by the span of the marks, I was not hurt or angry. The judge who gave my image a 5 was perfectly entitled to do so. My photographic intent was not appreciated by this judge, and she marked it accordingly.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has walked through an art gallery or photographic exhibition and, as I have done, wondered what on earth the artist was trying to do or say with a particular picture.  Perhaps some of my poor opinions are borne out of ignorance. Much of the art world escapes me. But, my opinion will always be a mix of my individual experience, emotion, and aesthetic sensibility. In the art world, for example, I have grown to appreciate certain abstract expressionists whose art baffled me at first, while some other artists’ work continues to have little or no appeal. We all do this, and it’s not right or wrong – it is what it is.

Last night we discussed an image of a fox that was titled Nature’s Darker Side. It was a hard image to look at, and one judge was of the opinion that it was “not an image for public viewing”. While we don’t know for sure, perhaps this judge found the image distressing. If so, I understand and sympathize with this perspective. We live in a time when we seem to be bombarded with images of suffering; if the news isn’t enough, film and television dramatizations make sure we have plenty of grisly scenes to digest. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has turned the page or the channel to get past a particularly disturbing image or video footage. On the other hand, I also understand the photographer who took the picture and entered it into competition. After all, death, illness and suffering are all part of nature, and this image captured an unusual sight. Not only is there a long tradition of photographing the darker side of nature, there have been times when such images have been important to our understanding of how things work, or influential in promoting change.

At times, in my own life, I’ve had to make decisions about what I’ve photographed. I have made images of a dead pigeon in the snow, a dead mouse among the leaves in our garden, and details from a Cedar Waxwing which broke its neck crashing into our dining room window. I have a picture (deliberately rendered in black and white) of a long-dead salmon, lying in the shallows of a stream, that had been gnawed by a racoon or other animal. My wife hates them all.

On another occasion I happened upon a scene of a coyote which had been hit by a car – an unusal scene because this was in a densely populated area of a city. The animal was still alive but immobile when I first saw it; after about 20 minutes some local veterinarians arrived and euthanized it. A “story” for sure, and I had my camera with me. But, on that occasion, I just could not take a picture. So much for me as a photojournalist.

Being a competition judge is challenging, and we should be grateful when individuals do step forward to this job, especially when comments are requested.  Clarity of the written word is almost never assured, despite our best efforts. As entrants in a competition, we need to understand that judges – even trained and experienced judges – always bring their own experience, emotion and aesthetic sensibilities to the task. How could they do otherwise? An honest opinion is an honest opinion. We may disagree with it, but I would hope that we don’t ever take it personally.

John Burnett (President BPS)

P.S. So what about my picture which earned a score of 5 out of 10 – was the judge correct? Well, five years after that competition, I still “kind of” like it. But I now realize that its success (or failure) relies very much on the effect that I had tried to create. Take away the effect and suddenly there’s a whole lot less to like. Today, I’d maybe give it a 7 if I were judging – certainly not the 8 or 9 that the other judges awarded. Live and learn.

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