It is contest season
Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News
A Mesquite swimmer practices turning at the Town East Pool in Mesquite on Tuesday, January 27, 2004. Mesquite doesn't have an indoor pool, so swimmers practice at a heated outdoor pool.
Ahhh... Contest season. Can't you just see the hair falling out and getting stuck in the keyboard at 4 a.m. on deadline day. Then the keys stick. Then there is a loud bang, bang, bang, DAMN! Bang, bang sound from the other side of the scanning room. Then possibly some sobbing.
Yup. It really is this much fun. Contest season is the wonderful time of the year when you can look at all your hard work from the previous year and determine you don't have squat. Not only don't you have squat, you start wondering why you worked so hard to be squatless.
It doesn't matter. You need to send something anyway. Why? Because you do this ritualistic masochism each year. It is part of the tradition. If you don't try, then what? Horrible nightmares.
So what exactly is contest season?
It is the time from Dec. 31 through the ending date of the last major contest. In this time, photojournalists try to narrow their images down to a set of 20 images (stories count as 1 everywhere) from the last 12 months and submit those same (or slight variations) to as many contests as possible. The hope is to win, but we all know the odds are slim. A major competition gets thousands of entrants -- all with award-winning images.
Contests by their nature have some problems. The judges are not necessarily choosing the best images. They are eliminating the worst and comparing the remainder against mental images of previous winners.
The judges are tasked with whittling (for example) 100,000 images down to 1st, 2nd, 3rd and up to three Honorable Mentions in a matter of days.
Many of the images at a major competition have won awards at other competitions throughout the year. This will effect the judge. Similarly, sleep deprivation, a cold, a traffic jam, a hangover, a childhood fear of oranges or any other problem in the world might effect the judge.
Most images are viewed for about one to three (1-3) seconds. That's it. If the judge spots a problem -- any problem -- it is "out." This causes simple, clean images to be favored and "complicated" images to be quickly eliminated.
Because of the above subjectivity, one DMN freelancer refuses to compete in any contests. I keep trying to convince him that he is not looking at the big picture. So, we will look only toward the positives of competing.
Contests are how two equal shooters are separated. A person applying for an internship or a news job has a photojournalism degree from a fine university with 3.8 GPA, a full rig with all the right lenses and lights, etc.
Potential employers use the same standards as photo contest judges. It is not a matter of selecting the best job candidate. It is a matter of eliminating the worst.
Those portfolios left on the desk need to stand apart from the others. Competition is how this occurs.
I can promise there is no photo editor who will toss aside an average portfolio if they see the shooter has a Pulitzer Prize on his/her resume. Such portfolio gets a "bye" to the final round of judging for the job. Having staff photographers with major awards is good for the prestige (and marketing) of the newspaper, magazine or other business.
I think I got my friend's attention. He decided he would compete. Now what? Look at the contest rules and see if you meet any of the criteria. Are you a woman working for a newspaper for less than two years? No. Well, that eliminated some of the contest possibilities immediately.
There are many "little" contests. These are good training grounds. However, the photojournalism majors are Pulitzer Prize, World Press Photo (WPP), Photographs of the Year (POY), NPPA's Best of Photojournalism (BOP), Associated Press Managing Editors Award (APME), Society for News Design (SND), National Headliner Awards, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, Katie Awards and others.
Some pay huge cash prizes. Some also charge huge entry fees. Obviously, those with the highest cash awards for the lowest entry fee become the most difficult to win. Once most staffers get their fill of regular awards, they might only enter the cash prize contests. Some senior photojournalists quit competing altogether. This is good in a way because it makes competition easier for those just starting out. Although it is not great for photojournalism in general.
There are two ways to approach contest season. I prefer to look at what I have done throughout the year and hammer it into the closest identification hole. "This looks like a feature to me." I prefer to shoot for our readers rather than a contest judge.
Others will shoot specifically for competition. To be honest, this plan works better than my plan. You can immediately tell which photographers do this from a set of their images. This practice is frowned upon by most photojournalists, but it keeps winning year after year. So, until several contests crack down on the shooters, it will continue to happen.
Likewise, severely toning images is starting to get some attention as was done this year when Patrick Schneider's images were disqualified. This is more of a digital ethics issue though.
Enough for now,