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On Photo Contests: Opinions Matter… but Please, Can’t We Be Civil?


I write a version of this story every year around this time: Photo Contest result time. And every year, it’s addressing the same grousing and whining and complaints about everything from non-diversified juries to images being too newsy or not newsy enough.
And of course, everybody has an opinion about the winners! Oy vey! Well, you know the old saying about opinions; they are like a**holes — everybody has one. And if you take away nothing else from this article, remember this; No one wants to see your a**hole in public!

So, before you put yourself out there in the Twitterverse, please give the tone of what you post some thoughtful and well-mannered scrutiny prior to showing everyone your sphincter.

Yes, we all have opinions, and yes we all have the right to make them heard. I am not asking you to not voice them. I fully support your first amendment right to do so. But this is where I am greatly troubled and dismayed; Can we at least be civil when we voice them on social media and elsewhere? There is nothing to be gained by trashing the judges or the images they chose. So much more can be gained by having a meaningful dialogue that doesn’t include impugning the judgment of your brethren. Our industry is getting to a point where we are eating our own!

The Photo Contest biggies; World Press Photo, POYi, NPPA’s BOP, etc., generally do a fine job of choosing a diversified and genre appropriate jury. So I would cut the judges a little slack. They are usually volunteering their valuable time to give back to the industry that has been good to them. And for that, I applaud them.

But also remember this. There is way too much weight being placed on photography contests. When they announce the results, ask yourself what it means to you and try to put it all into some kind of personal perspective. How will these results affect you? Will it cause you to think or shoot differently? And please don’t let the worst thing happen; that you start shooting for contests!

It doesn’t mean the pictures they chose are better than yours or any other photographer’s.

It does mean that those particular judges believed those particular pictures were the best that they saw in that particular contest, period!

It doesn’t mean that the winners will have photo editors and buyers knocking down their doors for assignments.

It does mean that they’ve been officially recognized by their peers and should be proud of that fact.

It will also give you something new to tout on your website. Some photographers believe this is good for marketing but trust me, winning (or losing) a photo contest will not make or break you as a photographer. And, I can tell you that in my 40 years of assigning photographers, I never assigned a single one based on them winning a photo contest!

James Colton, Jury Chair with the World Press Photo of the Year 2006 by Finbarr O’Reilly Credit: Reuters/World Press Photo

Photo contests will always be subjective. Much of what is judged at photo contests is based on emotion, with some facts and knowledge thrown in. Many judges will state they chose the winners based on how it made them “feel.” The late Eddie Adams once said that “A good picture is one that reaches down your throat and tugs at your heart.”

Photo Contests also evolve, just as all contests do. And sometimes we will see winning images that portray hope (not enough in my humble opinion) And sometimes we will see despair and the ugly face of war. Such is the world we live in and some judges place values on the news and socio-economic realities as well as contemporary issues that we are all facing. We are living in a very troubled time so it does not surprise me that many of the images we are seeing reflect that.

Let me close with an analogy and a final comment. Look at the Miss America contest, which started in 1921. Concept: Judge beauty. And someone said, “Hold on, let’s put them in bathing suits so we can really judge their beauty! And let’s make them show us they have some talent because if they can play the violin and be pretty, that’s even better!”

I highly doubt that “criteria” would hold water in today’s environment. And it shouldn’t! And photo contests are not like Nathan’s 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest where you are judged solely by numbers. And even in those type of contests, the majority (or popular vote) doesn’t always win.

Any contest that requires judgment must be taken for what it’s worth: Best in the opinion of some learned people in the industry that were asked to collaborate with their colleagues and provide a ranking on what they saw — nothing more!

Final comment: I’ve often equated contests to gravy — nice to have on your mashed potatoes — but you still have to have the potatoes! The only contest you have to win is the one where you judge yourself. Did I do the best I could? Was it done in a professional and ethical manner? Am I happy with the results? Did I learn something that will help me in the future? If the answers are yes, then you will always be a winner.

About the author: James K. Colton is currently Editor at Large at ZUMA Press and Editor-in-Chief of zPhotoJournal.com. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Colton has served as a photo editor and director at Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press, and Newsweek. He is on the Board of Directors of the Eddie Adams Workshop. He was the Jury Chairman for the World Press Photo contest in 2005, received an International Photography Awards “Lucie” for Picture Editor of the Year in 2007, was named Magazine Picture Editor of the Year in 2008 by the National Press Photographers Association, and has been acknowledged as one of the 100 most important people in photography by American Photo. You can visit his website here and connect with him on Twitter. This article was also published here.

Image credits: Header illustration: Thesix World Press Photo of the Year 2018 Finalists. Credit: World Press Photo