What Do Photography Contest Judges Look for in Winning Photos?

When the 2014 World Press Photo Awards were announced, some choices made perfect sense. Others were met with confusion. In the following video, jury chair Gary Knight explains some of the more complex decisions the panel had to make this year:

Who Won, and Why

The first photo discussed is Goran Tomasevic‘s first-prize spot news story, a series of Syrian rebels attacking an army checkpoint:

syrian-rebel-photos

“For us, it was a terrific example of a very sort of classic spot-news story: photographer is responding to something way beyond their control, something that’s very immediate and very urgent, and doing so with enormous skill.”

Next is Moises Saman‘s surprising second-prize general news shot of a man casually, artfully crafting a makeshift bomb in Syria. As Knight explains, the subtlety and grace of the photo is what sold the jury:

aleppo-bomb-maker

“It sort of disappeared every now and again during the voting process, and the story eventually disappeared. But this single image kept being brought back, and I think one of the reasons why is that it was really surprising and really ambiguous. It looked like it could have been, you know, somebody in the south of France bottling wine… This image was incredibly subtle.”

Knight moves onto Steve Winter‘s first-place nature story on the natural lifestyle of American cougars, which must have taken an exceptional amount of time and research to complete:

cougars-wild

“You have to understand where the animals pass, where they’re walking, and anticipate where they’re going to be. It’s an extraordinary, long, long, process, and we just felt that this was so beautifully done.”

In what might be the most unconventional choice of the year, newcomer Fred Ramos took the first-prize daily life story with his series of bodiless clothes, the last outfits left behind by dead El Salvadorans:

el-salvador-missing-people

“The jury felt that this story tackled a very important issue in a very innovative way. And obviously it’s very conceptual, it’s very rigorous, even dogmatic. It was a powerful act of communication using very, very simply form, and very straightforward photography. But we thought it was a very, very sophisticated way of addressing a very well-photographed story… What also caught the jury’s eye was the photograph of the clothing that remained of a 17- or 18-year-old girl, her underwear, and there’s vulnerability in that photograph. We thought this was just a really well-constructed, really well-conceived act of communication about a very, very important issue.”

Lastly, Knight discusses the first-place single observed portrait taken at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, captured by Markus Schreiber. Knight admits there were a lot of submissions from the funeral, but here’s why they chose Scheiber’s:

nelson-mandela-funeral

“This jury didn’t feel obliged to represent every issue that was photographed this year, nor did we feel that just because an event or an issue was of significant importance that it had to be represented. But this photograph really gave us the opportunity… Jillian Edelstein, the chairwoman of the portrait jury, felt that this was just a beautifully observed, natural portrait.”

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One response to “What Do Photography Contest Judges Look for in Winning Photos?”

  1. Dan Richards says:

    “It sort of disappeared every now and again during the voting process, and the story eventually disappeared. But this single image kept being brought back, and I think one of the reasons why is that it was really surprising and really ambiguous. It looked like it could have been, you know, somebody in the south of France bottling wine… This image was incredibly subtle.”

    No the image is very lacking. When you look at some of the other images that have been done on this story, this image becomes a “snapshot” not a Photographic journalism shot. Example is when you look at the story of the 10 year old boy making mortars for the Syrian Army, you see the difference. In this case the winner needs a story to explain the image, in the case of the 10 year old, every image told a part of the story.
    This is something I have seen very often in contests, more unqualified people win than the ones that should have. I know when I have entered and felt good on my shot, after looking around, I usually find five to ten that I know I have lost to. Then you see a winner, that makes you wonder “How? why?” I mean in this, finding the subject is often hard, or the POV is so far out that you are confused as to what the shot is. OR even more often, the shot is more a “Snapshot” than anything that should have been entered. After seeing these and reading the comments I am still staying with my view and stay out of contests now. Judging is usually questionable, and money spent is not worth it.

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