Out… In… Out… Out… Out…

It’s contest season in the photojournalism world, and anyone familiar with Pictures of the Year International judging will get the title of this post. As the judges register their votes during the various rounds and categories of judging a voice calls out the result: out, out, out, out, in. For many years that was a student voice (mine included once), but now it’s mechanical, which seems almost more appropriate given the mechanical process the judges have to go through to evaluate the photographs. Some categories start with more than 1,000 entries that the judges have to whittle down to the top three plus, perhaps, a few awards of excellence.

I’m not using the term mechanical as a criticism. It’s just referring to the repetition and the quick decisions the judges have to go through. Having observed some judging sessions, I know the judges actively look at each picture before registering their votes. When the selections are narrowed down to the final choices, debate over the merits of an individual photograph, what it shows and how it reflects the ideals of the competition often are deep and thoughtful, even if the judges disagree. When it’s all said and done though, the judges of POY (and, I suspect, World Press Photo, the Pulitzers, Best of Photojournalism and other contests) come to some agreement on their selections of the best examples of photojournalism from the previous year.

Differing views of photographs are not unique. The one universal truth about photographs is that there is no universal truth. There is, and has been, a perception that photographs are mechanical recordings of how things actually appeared at a point in time. In sense that is true, but in actuality, how photographs are seen and interpreted by a viewer is influenced by many things: the content of the picture, the goals of the photographer in creating the image and information that explains and provides context to the picture. Add to that the individual perspectives of each viewer and it’s no surprise that one person’s beautiful sunset is another person’s evidence of heightened air pollution. Judges disagree.  A different group of judges would bring different points of disagreement. People disagree with the judges and with each other. A former judge, Brad Mangin, wrote about the differing perspectives judges bring and how our different perspectives are formed.

What can we take from the differing views of the award-winning (and not-so-award-winning) photographs? A reminder to look at things from a different perspective from time to time, perhaps. Or opportunities to assess our own perspectives by challenging them with perspectives of others. It’s how we grow, and how our “vision” evolves.

In the meantime, we get to see a lot of great photography. Thanks to the judges of all the competitions for the time and effort they put into the work.

By the way,  you can see the winning photographs of POYi after judging for each category is completed at www.poyi.org.

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