Judge or be Judged

f11 May

this article – p130

Having just completed a round of presentations to photographers on the process of preparing images for submission to various professional institutes’ annual print awards, I was struck by the need for the judges to have done their own homework as well.

Both the Australian (AIPP) and the New Zealand (NZIPP) Institutes have been organising and conducting professional photography awards at a high level of excellence, for in excess of thirty years.  Indeed it may well be said that both these awards are an aim point on how such events should be conducted.  Whist a lot has been written and discussed about how one should prepare images for entry to these awards, little discussion has been had regarding the conduct of judges – other than the “I wuz robbed – the judges did not understand my work” type of rant immediately following the publication of results.

Disclaimer – I have been a Judge at the AIPP Awards for in excess of twenty-five years and at the NZIPP Awards for eight years.  Further, as a product of a post-graduate visual arts degree as a mature age student, I also have some understanding of the background to both art and photography.  And the two do overlap, even in the area of domestic and commercial photography.

Whilst many judges would argue that an extensive broad knowledge of their particular genre of expertise (wedding, portrait or commercial for example) is all that is required to fulfill the role of judge.  I would beg to differ.  Bringing a wider frame of reference to the judging table also brings with it, a wider and more intuitive set of observations.  These are the observations that enable an experienced judge to read and interpret a ‘sophisticated’ image.  Such skills do not come easily, nor do they come by commercial practice alone.  A working knowledge of a broad range of photographic genres is useful; as is an understanding of the work of photographic practitioners from abroad; and let us not forget the visual influences and references from the more traditional modes of fine art.  Fine art gives us the basis on which portraiture is constructed, as well as the nuances that are woven into many areas of contemporary photography.   

These Awards use a similar process of five judges working as a panel to assess work, item by item.  It is the construction of the panel that is the secret to a truly fair assessment.  Judges bring with them to the judging table the sum total of their industry expertise as well as their ‘found’ knowledge achieved through research.  This can be by way of technical awareness of process, a deep knowledge of historic styles, an extensive study of broad art practice or a familiarity with overseas trends and styles.  It is the combination of practitioners bringing these skills to bear that brings together the best of judging panels. Their ability to share their skills across the panel is the sum total of valuable knowledge.

Of course possessing this knowledge is the first step to using it in the role of a judge. 

The Awards under review utilise a debating style of assessment where, after Judges have entered a score via a keypad, they may choose to challenge the averaged amount; either in a negative or a positive manner.  It is at this point that the judge’s ability to succinctly mount an argument is crucial to the process.

Further to having a database of photographic and art based references at one’s finger tips, it is now essential that the judge has the ability to defend their opinion and position by vocal debate, rather than visual knowledge.  The ‘I like what I see’ statement is not only irrelevant, but useless in this style of assessment.  A knowledge of debating technique is called for, as is an understanding of contemporary visual language, in order to eloquently describe, explain or defend a given assessment.  It is at this point that many judges fall by the wayside; not having spent any time, in an educative way, learning more than the use of f-stops or weighing up the pros and cons of purchasing Nikon over Canon. 

Most experienced photographers are capable of placing a qualitative number against an exhibited print – but far fewer skilled photographers can convincingly defend their assessment of an image when placed in the position of judge in front of their peers. 

They need also do this, ever mindful of an audience of highly involved, subjective, emotionally invested and, dare I say it, keenly judgemental viewers at the back of the room, even though their silence is a given during the deliberations.

This is where the judge is judged.

This text was first published in the f11 Magazine, May 2013

4 thoughts on “Judge or be Judged

  1. It is well and good that an AIPP judge is across art history and what is happening in contemporary art but the awards lists hardly hint of it. Rather the stream of pictures seem to come from a different planet, a closed shop, that appears remarkably inward looking and repetitive.

    Maybe I’m off the beam but I thought I’d look at the history of the AIPP Photoshop er, Print Awards to see if there was trend to excellence traceable to the influence of good judges or a trend to dreck led by bad ones.

    Frankly I’m not sure I could find anything much in the way of trends or evolution or progress at all. Hundreds and thousands of images follow one another with the predictability of clockwork. Highly worked, highly stressed images are squeezed, wrenched, and forged into virtual parodies of what segments of the real world actually look like. I’m surprised by the near universal mind-set that photography is at its best when it contrives pictures that celebrate “never existed, didn’t happen, never looked like that” as worthy achievements. But not so fast, maybe AIPP picture makers are not the imagination-free lemmings a casual tour through the awards books would suggest.

    To win an AIPP Photoshop Award it’s pretty plain that the best entry strategy is based on cribbing what won last year but revving it up more, a lot more. Failing that it’s possible to trawl through what gets acclaimed in commercial illustration elsewhere (the world is an open book via the internet) and copy and tweak without shame. If I was in the AIPP and figured an award would be good for my business that’s exactly what I would do. And I wouldn’t care about art history, subtlety, sophistication, creativity, or aesthetic value. I’d be secure in the knowledge that a judge cannot mark down this year what they praised to the sky last year and retain credibility. Crikey, a judge that breaks the mould might not even get invited back next year to do more judging.

    But there is an absolute defence for all of this. Professional picture-making is a bluntly pragmatic business where the risks of art experimentation are scarcely worth it. If I were chasing money I’d concentrate on making predictable pictures that sell and pursue industry awards that help feed me and mine.


    • Maris, this is not a new topic between you and I; but I welcome your input. We disagree marginally, but I take on board your Photoshop gibe. Partially correct, but not as apparent as it may have been in recent years. I also sense a judging movement that doesn’t reward the replication of last years’ winners with this years’ gongs. If this alone were to happen as a result of this article, I would be very happy.


    • Doug and Vicky, thanks for you comment – any proposition that is genuinely held, carefully considered and succinctly expressed, is worthy of discussion. And I welcome that………….


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