I've had to oversee a number of photo contests in my time, but there was only one where I got to set the rules and parameters myself. In that one, we had several judges, but my decree was that each judge got to pick his or her own first-place winner, with no interference from any of the other judges. Each judge picked a radically different picture—in fact, radically different kinds of pictures—but even after the passage of well over ten years, I still think all the prizes went to very good photographs. And, because each co-winner was chosen by a single judge who bore sole responsibility for the decision, the judges' defenses of their choices were articulate, positive, and impassioned.
I still think that's the best way to run a photo contest. Committees might not always make bad decisions—sometimes what you want is caution and consensus—but committee decision-making doesn't suit the exercise of aesthetic judgment. Time and time again, I've watched as committees of judges wrangled and disputed over their preferences. Strong advocacy is often counterbalanced by strong negativity. Everyone has to make concessions. What ends up happening is that a compromise is reached that everyone can live with...but unfortunately it's also often a choice with which no one is 100% happy.
It's different with juried shows. There, the jurors tend to become political, and to reach accommodations with each other—"I'll let yours in if you let mine in." That's a function of having more slots available. But I'll bet if any four of the people who write for TOP had to agree on just one picture to single out for a prize, we'd have a lot of trouble.
Here's an exercise in delectation. Let's say you're a contest judge with a prize of, say, $2,500 to bestow on some lucky photographer. And whatever you choose will be seen by thousands of people who wouldn't otherwise see it. You alone are charged with finding, from any source, a single photograph that you think is remarkable enough to deserve such special distinction.
What would you choose? Anything come to mind?
I'm not sure I'd know where to start.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Joe: "I was a judge several times in two different national photo competitions—coming to a consensus to pick three to five winners each time—and I came to the opposite conclusion from you, Mike. I found that it was bracing to have my choices challenged and have to defend them. And I found it really valuable having to articulate my disagreement with another judge's choices.
"At the very end of one competition, when we were down to the very last few candidates, another judge and I were baffled by the third judge's choice, and we spent quite a bit of time debating our stances. I probably learned more about my own prejudices and preferences in a half hour that day than in the year that came before.
"I've developed a better appreciation of photography through those experiences—I would hope all the judges felt the same way.
"But actually your complaint was more about the results of the judging process, right?
"I do think the results of those competitions were better for the discussions we all had. Each time I've judged, 90% of the rejects were easy and quick, and we always ended up with a small group of excellent photos from which the winners were chosen. Though picking the winners was always hard, that's a testament to the high quality of the finalists. I was really glad to have others to compare notes with, and bounce ideas off. I've judged where I could have tossed a coin to select three winners from six or seven final contenders, because they were all so fine. A little discussion was very helpful in that case."