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On photography competitions and their potential to be sending the wrong message

Are photo competitions sending the wrong message? As the Black and White LensCulture 2018 finalists, results have been posted this week, in reviewing the photos, and like all people, I believe some are great, and some are questionable. But the broader concern I have around the ever-growing fashion of competitions is that I think the wrong message is being sent to photographers.

this post was originally written in November 2018

To be very clear, I freaking love Lens Culture. I read their articles all the time, I have submitted to a multitude of competitions, and I really like the feedback I have been getting via their ‘submissions reviews’. In all honesty, to me, it’s worth it. But something struck a nerve when reviewing the finalists from this year Black and White competition.

I will note, this article has little to do with my own results in this competition. I got an incredible review fed back to me as part of this competition, and am content with how my photos faired. I was featured in their gallery, and my picture was posted on their Instagram page and ended up with almost 20k likes, so I’m very proud. But as a thinker, and someone who enjoys exploring the philosophy of photography, I feel as though I’m allowed to open the conversation I’m about to as it’s just as relevant as the review of a single image.

No matter the outcome of any competition, it’s likely that many of us question the broader decisions made by jurors– and the reality of the matter is, it’s really only ever up to individual tastes and understanding which leads to these results. I see no point in questioning the finalists as they stand and respect the outcomes presented. What I would, however, like to bring attention to and place some concern around, is the broader meaning and impact a select group of images can have on the approach and thinking of our up and coming contemporary photographers.

With the pressures and stresses and the ever-increasing difficulty around finding success in photography, competitions seem like a brilliant way to get some attention to your work. Incredibly well run competitions hosted by Lens Culture, World Press Photos and The British Journal of Photography, to name a few, provide many of us an opportunity to get our work out there. As these are considered part of the more valued photography bodies out there, it, therefore, sets the standard and precedent of the level and type of photograph that is being noted and considered by industries. Having industry figures from preferred mediums such as the New York Times to judge the competitions sets this precedence and baseline also.

On a specific level, they supply a Jurors selection of images and provide a justification of each image selected to give photographers an idea of why an image was selected, and I’d like to tackle one or two of these below, but before I do that, I would like to bring to attention my broader concern and motive for writing this article. I’m concerned that competitions (not just specifically Lens Culture to be explicit, but its an easy example in this case) are setting the precedence for photographers to be focusing on negative narratives and potentially denigrating the significant issues and problems of our time by creating a sort of photographers tourism out of plights and global affairs for the purpose of judgement and victory.

Many of the photos in the Black and White finalist and winning list are negative narratives that are purported under the guise of “bringing to attention” issues and stories of problems that exist globally. But I question whether displaying winners in such a way more so brings these issues the wrong kind of attention. That is to say “this is the type of photo you need to take to win this competition.” The interpretation is up to the viewer, as much as it is the competition host, but is there something we can do to avoid sending the wrong message?

Danish Rajab Jhat, 24 years old, from Srinagar

I’m concerned that people will begin to think that one must take photos of the sad, broken and damaged to potentially be noticed and even win these competitions rather than bringing a voice to the plight of these people. Out of the 3 series winners, 3 single winners, 8 Jurors picks and 25 finalists I count 13 photos which represent an image that isn’t negative. Of those remaining 13, I would consider only 4 of them as having a positive narrative. This is the first part of my concern. Many of the images presented in the winning groups have some form of a negative story which would begin to suggest to many viewers that this is what they should be aiming for to see success. Barthe’s separates the duality of photography into Operators and the Spectators. Operators being the photographer function as Photography-according-to-the-photographer – and this is where my issue begins.

So rather than bringing to light the issues that Danish Rajab Jhat, 24 years old, from Srinagar faces or faced when he had his face sprayed with the shells from a shotgun walking home one night(image above), we’ve potentially shown thousands of photographers that to win this competition, we must find stories which are no less equal to that of Danish so that it can be expressed in similar contests in the aim of victory. Are we now bringing to light these issues, or are we denigrating people in the struggle for the sake of a bourgeois competition? I do not ask this question for an answer, I merely raise it out of concern to be considered.

To be clear and not to be mistaken, I’m not saying that these images shouldn’t be selected due to their negative undertones. Nay, these images are an essential message and house equal value however they are viewed, but I wonder if these competitions are not creating a market for the negative, especially when the bulk of images being shown are negative? I hope I am wrong in this case.

Let me further outline my example with the following; one of the Jurors picks was the below photo titled “the vanishing AIDS generation.” The title is gruesome and unfair, and one that is fitting for the image it accompanies. The juror’s justification for selecting this image is as follows

I think that nowadays it is important to underline the importance that an image can have, and how it can be transversal and an important message that speaks to more people. The composition and the subject of this image recall that of the classical works linked to the concept of piety, and put the suffering of the sick and of the women close to him at a religious and universal level. Every age has a disease that makes a human being an untouchable victim of prejudice and certainly — AIDS is that of the last thirty years. I chose this photo to combat this prejudice.”

The vanishing AID’s generation

I look to French philosopher Simone Weil for help dissecting this issue. “There are only two services which images can offer the afflicted. One is to find the story which expresses the truth of their affliction. The Second is to find the words which can give resonance, through the crust of external circumstances, to the cry which is always audible “Why am I being hurt.”. The Jurors justification on this image seems to lack and appreciate the wider value and detail this image offers and inferences religious sanctimony about a disease we’re unsure the man has. It infers a lot about an image which lacks what’s being represented.

If we were to accept the truth of an image like this and accept the reasoning behind it being represented as a jurors pick, we would conclude that most of us would cry out for the plight of this man. As Berger says “we would cry out against it frequently, to the sky.” The point he makes is, we obtain awareness and truth through these images, we are outraged by them, and understand the plight through its narrative. Yet we find more descriptions of equal weight, show them, and the statistic keeps piling up against them.

The photo above of the suffering man isn’t a portrait. The man doesn’t look into the world offered by the lens to share his plight, but rather, he’s become the object of the difficulty labelled ‘AIDs’ by the photographer. We cannot really discern whether or not he has the disease, a disease at its fundamental core is invisible to us, what we do see is the outcomes of illness, namely his malnutrition. The Jurors definition actually represents this man in such a way that one would assume all skinny people who are being cared for have AIDs. This is quite a dangerous text to supply as justification to the images real value.

Furthermore, rather than outlining the objective nature of the offered narrative in the image, the Juror uses the word “composition” as if the image was staged for the very effect removing all value to the people in the image as people, but again as just further object to the negative narrative. This terminology is what fuels my concerns. To parade the plight of suffering under the guise of awareness, almost alluding to the tourism of suffering, while stating an aim to remove prejudice can easily be misunderstood and undermine the value of an image.

I hope in the future we see a more significant effort made towards the texts we use to justify why an image has been selected, and even more effort made to clarify that the plight of these people isn’t a photographers tourist hotspot for victory. I wish for these competitions to proceed, as every image in this final is valid and essential as a visual lesson to the broader world, but I would hope we place some better parameters about why these images are winning, and better detailing toward their significance and value over their placement and accreditation.

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