Competition or Conspiracy?

Competitions are funny things, they can bring out the very best in people and at times the very worst. That is the way of things really, there are always winners and losers and in between there are those just taking part trying their best. Conspiracies work along similar lines. There is the truth and those that know the truth, there are those that don’t know the truth and spin all sorts of theories, conspiracy or otherwise, and in between there are those just trying to fathom out what is real and what is not.

Earlier this week I had a brief but interesting interaction with someone on Twitter who didn’t believe man had landed on the Moon. He said he wasn’t alive back in 1969 and had no reason to believe the moon landings took place. There was no point trying to argue with him because there was nothing I could really say that would change his mind and similarly I don’t possess any evidence myself beyond articles on the internet or books written by believers and academics and of course the hours of video footage that exists. In this day and age, we are meant to ignore so called experts…apparently. However, I could see his point when I extrapolated the issue. The moon landings were nearly 50 years ago. Mankind has not stretched itself that far into space since, except with probes and rovers. Why should a young man believe these things took place years before he was born? As far as he was concerned the whole thing is a conspiracy. The best I could do was simply tell him to follow Buzz Aldrin on Twitter, the second man to walk on the moon. Perhaps hearing some ‘truths’ from the horses mouth might educate and inform. I left it there.

The other thing that happened on Twitter this week was people were told by Take a View, whether they had been shortlisted in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2017 or not. For the purposes of this blog I am going to assume you already know what this competition is. If you do not, then Google is your friend. Anyway, I was unsuccessful…again. In I think 6 years of trying I’ve managed to get in the book once, last year. Does this make me a bad Landscape Photographer? No it does not. Anyone else? No. Of course I have the small accolade of having won Outdoor Photographer of the Year a few years back to add credence to my belief. Others do not. But, in any case, it matters not.

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We all see the world differently and express what we see in different ways. We each (Landscape Photographers I mean) are at different stages of our development, some further along than others. We are all learning, even the seasoned pro’s. What may appear amateurish to some will have others gazing on with astonishment. A commercial competition that needs to appeal to a broad range of tastes and levels of photographers needs to encompass the full spectrum of talent, within reason. Let’s be clear, the final Landscape Photographer of the Year book does not represent the very best landscape photography out there at a given time. It can’t and I think neither does it try to. What it does do is provide us with an eclectic mix representative of tastes and fashions that are prevalent at the time and a number of winners, at least, that represent those that are at or near the top of their game at that given time.

The competition has always courted controversy, most notably in 2012 when the winner was subsequently disqualified for what was an, apparently, innocuous breach of the rules. Controversy in these circles, albeit unsavoury at times, leads to publicity, which is something the landscape photography community seemingly strives for incessantly. Each year we promise ourselves it will be different, each year ends up feeling like deja vu.

Last year I kept very quiet on the subject. One, because I was shortlisted myself, but two, because I was going through a period of just not being vocal about such things publicly. This year was a bit different and having taken a lot of time to refine my photography I felt I had put together at least some images that might be considered some of the best of their type, at least worthy of consideration in this prestigious competition. They didn’t get shortlisted. I broke my silence with a slow reveal of the images on Twitter. By the time I finished posting my 25 images, over about 5 hours, any misgivings I may have felt had ebbed away and I realised that what I was doing was showing some kind of solidarity with others who were in a similar position. I didn’t feel the need to complain and it gave me time to think about the competition more objectively. Like the guy who didn’t believe in the moon landings, I had no evidence to suggest wrong doing on the part of the judges nor any animosity they may have towards me personally. I just didn’t know, that was all. The way the competition is run, neither does anyone else. And this, this is what leads to conspiracy theories. Social Media has been awash with them. So, let’s be a little objective.

I should mention at this point that I’ve never judged a photography competition and in some respects I admire those that have. The closest I’ve come is sifting through hundreds of images on Photocrowd…which in itself is both frustrating and incredibly dull.

Our assumption is that there are circa 25,000 entries to the competition, I think that number has been mentioned in press releases and the media before, so is probably correct. We also know the final book has in the region of 150 images. So, 25,000 down to 150. All other figures are hearsay and thus meaningless. Whatever they may be, the chances of getting in the book are less than 1%. Those are not great odds.

So, from here on in everything else is an assumption.

I’ve heard that the judges, in the initial sorting, view each image for about 2 to 5 seconds. Again, hearsay. We don’t know how they view the images, in what order, and for how long. However, I think it is safe to say that even if that were true, that would have to be an average figure. Some images they may view intently. Others may able to be dismissed instantly. Any photographer worth his salt…no, anyone actually, can tell if they like an image instantly, within micro seconds probably. Much like we form a view on someone within 10 seconds of meeting them, our instinct is such that we assess the situation rapidly. If we like an image we will dwell on it and explore it, perhaps just looking for flaws, but if we simply don’t like it, we don’t like it and move on. So, the notion that some folk have that they’ve laboured over an image only for it to be dismissed in 2 seconds is perhaps both true but also inevitable. Labouring an image does not necessarily make it a great image to trained eyes.

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A lot is said of the judges in this case, and also the proprietor of the competition, which I think is a little unfair, well, very unfair actually. Their silence is deafening in some respects, but we can probably assume that they are contractually obliged not to weigh in to the various arguments that they can and do see raging online. Knowing some of the judges as I do and given their reputation in the industry, I don’t think for a minute they would partake in a competition such as this unless it was absolutely fair and unbiased. I can’t stress that point enough. Having said that, the decision by Take a View to keep the judging process itself completely confidential does nothing to allay the conspiracy theorists. I’ll admit that I’ve dwelled on the conspiracies myself, and at times added to them, and it is at this point I have to be true to myself and say again that these are nothing but hearsay. Other competitions are indeed more open about how they are judged, which I personally think is a good thing to some extent. To be critical of Take a View, the company, because they choose to keep the process secret is probably fair enough. However, to be critical of the judges and judging, any of them, is simply disrespectful.

Another thing that seems to be misunderstood is the speed of the process. This year the competition deadline was at midnight on 8th July. The competition had been open for entries since the 10th April. Yet still, many people left it to the last minute to enter. Whether you enter early or late possibly has no effect, but why risk that? What if the images are viewed in the order they are uploaded as has been suggested by some? Due to sheer volume your chances are perhaps higher if you are one of the first to upload vs those who are last. Shortlist emails went out on Thursday 20th July. A mere 12 days after the closing date. In that time, at the very least, the pre-judging panel have to make the widest number of selections. Whether the interim panel make the shortlist, or they are first to judge the shortlist after 20th July is another unknown. I suspect though the interim panel do their thing before 20th July too. Final judging takes place a couple of weeks thereafter. The process has to be this quick because of the book, the exhibition and preparation for the press releases and events, but especially the book, which needs to be designed and printed. A process that takes time…and secrecy. This all needs to take place before the reveal of the winner in October and probably to capture the Christmas market.

A quick note on that secrecy aspect. The competition I won, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, is concluded by the judges sending Steve Watkins, the head judge, their final choices separately after judging day. Only Steve and a select few people at Outdoor Photography magazine and the printers of the book, know the result. It’s essential the veil of secrecy is maintained. Given the commercial aspects of Take a View are perhaps even more crucial to the integrity of Landscape Photographer of the Year, then it’s quite probable that a similar process might take place at least. The judges themselves, with the exception of Head Judge, Charlie Waite, probably don’t need to know the outcome, that would just add to the risk that the great reveal will be blown.

Another factor that is perhaps controversial in some folks eyes is the notion that one can become Landscape Photographer of the year through a single image alone. It’s less Landscape Photographer of the Year and more Landscape Photograph of the Year. Many believe that the title should be awarded to a portfolio of images. It’s not hard to do. In Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year that is exactly what is done. Entrants who have 3 or more images shortlisted are put forward for the portfolio award and overall win, based on that set of 3 or more. I see no reason why that cannot happen in the Take a View competition…except that many people struggle to get 3 shortlisted in the first place. It is very rare and overall those that do are not necessarily representative of the best image. It’s a tough call and I am sure Take a View have their reasons for not pursuing this particular change. Perhaps it’s just a case that championing a single image has more impact commercially and in publicity terms?

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Finally, I just want to address an anomaly, or at least an apparent anomaly. Consistently we hear this message after shortlisting, “they didn’t choose my best image, rather the one I threw in at the last minute”. I think I’ve only heard one person say the opposite this year. This is one aspect that I do find perplexing and a bit of a shame, but is the reason why I again think the final results of this competition don’t represent the very best of UK Landscape Photography, rather an eclectic mix of tastes and fashions…which at the end of the day, is no bad thing.

Having said everything above, the competition continues to be a great showcase of talent across the country and it is very humbling that many of my peers believe that some of my work is good enough to be represented therein, in the final book. I hope others too, who have missed out this year, also reflect on this and take solace in it. The competition simply cannot be run in a way that pleases everybody. Not every sprinter who enters the Olympics can win, or even take part in, the 100m final. I just hope none of them cheat to do so. We are in some respects very lucky to have this competition in the first place. Few other competitions are so highly regarded, nationally or internationally, and certainly not with the sole focus being landscape. Given the amount of bile that gets spouted online about it it would be no surprise if Take a View simply closed the competition down…but they don’t, and I think overall we should be thankful that they don’t. I look forward to the results in October.

Oh, the guy who doesn’t believe man landed on the moon? He now follows Buzz Aldrin. Job done.

 

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One comment

  1. alan ranger · July 29

    well put Greg…. always has been and always will be subjective and create highs and lows for many of us….

    Like

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