What makes a photograph an award-winner? Experts say…

© Jessica Hines, Untitled #2, The Beginning, from the series My Brother’s War.
Grand Prize Winner, Portfolio Category, LensCulture International Exposure Awards 2010

Photography Awards and photo competitions often seem to have a mysterious quality about them. Inevitably I see some award-winning images that seem obviously great, and then others that really puzzle me. What is it about a certain image that makes it a winner?

As a member of several photo juries, I have an insider’s view to the deliberations, arguments, and subjective points of view of my colleagues (and of course my own subjective opinions). I always learn something from the process, and usually come away with increased appreciation of photography when seen through the eyes photography expert whose daily concerns about photography are different from mine (say, a museum curator, or a news assignment editor, or a photobook publisher).

As we approach the deadline for photographers to enter their series or single images to the 5th annual LensCulture Exposure Awards (deadline: October 31, 2013), I asked several of my fellow jury members to shed some light on what they look for while judging a photo competition. Here are some answers:

Alan Taylor, Editor of The Atlantic InFocus photography blog, says:

For me, it always starts with a gut feeling, something about the image that that reaches out and forces me to pay attention. Whether it’s the subject matter, or a powerful composition, or a masterful use of light, or a new way of seeing something I thought myself familiar with — something about the image really has to catch my eye. After that, I look for signs of craftsmanship, storytelling and intent. I am in awe of photographers who can manage to capture a fleeting moment with skill and artistry.

Based on the overall context of the competing entries, does the image powerfully evoke a reaction in the viewer, does it engage and tell a story well? It’s a subjective judgement, and relies on the composition of the competing entries, I have a feeling the decisions will be very tough in this competition.

Els Barents, Curator and director of the Huis Marseille photography museum in Amsterdam, says:

Judging is a special domain, professionally spoken that is. You have to go with the work at hand as well as with the eye of your colleagues, while still following your own intuition.

Dimitri Beck, Editor of Polka Magazine in Paris:

What are the qualities that I look for while judging a photo competition? To be surprised. To be touched. To learn something through a photo story.

What makes a series of photographs — or a single photograph — worthy of an Award from my specific point of view? When I feel I have learned something, that I have been told a story. And if I have cried inside, if not outside…

Michael Famighetti, Editor of Aperture magazine in New York, says:

I’m looking for a clear expression of an idea; I ask why is the photographer asking me to look at this?

When reviewing hundreds of submissions, exceptional, well-executed work that animates an idea and is visually exciting really stands out and deserves to be recognized.

So, there are some general guidelines, and of course there is no clear-cut formula for success (thankfully). Even if an image doesn’t win by group vote, individual judges often make careful notes of all of their favorites and follow up somehow with everyone who seems especially worthy of consideration. So, it’s a great way to have your work seen by a group of influential judges, whether you win or not. Why not enter your best work to see if your approach to photography makes an impact?

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