Consider the Photo Contest Jury

Consider the Photo Contest Jury

We recently launched the PhotoShelter Guide to Photo Contests 2019 – our annual look at contests around the world that we think are worth your consideration. And while our suggestions this year were heavily weighted towards contests with large cash prizes (a decision primarily motivated by contest winner feedback that suggests marketing exposure rarely translates to more work), we wanted to also discuss contest juries.

In past guides, we’ve explained how many juries have 100% turnover from year to year, and some contest organizers give jurors very little guidance over how they should judge. In the absence of specific guidance, jurors will tend to fall back on previous winners to inform their decisions, which can lead to visual sameness.

The issue is also compounded (particularly for documentary photography) when 1) photo editors hire western photographers to photographs foreign places, 2) western photographers fall back on tropes of exoticism or orientalism, 3) the images are entered in contests judged by primarily white, male, western juries.

John Edwin Mason, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia, has been outspoken on the issue of diversity on Twitter. When the winners of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize were announced, Mason expressed outrage that “All four prize winners in this year’s [competition] are portraits of black or brown people made by white photographers…”

Chirag Wakaskar, a Mumbai and Detroit based photojournalist, responded:

“As long as juries continue to look like this, we will continue to be “subjects” and not someone who can share space in decision making / driving the narrative.”

And in a piece for Al Jazeera, M Neelika Jayawardane, an Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Oswego and Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design, University of Johannesburg, wrote:

“How can African photographers hope to get work or recognition without reproducing expected stereotypes?”

The way we see the world is influenced by our experience. A photographer who has lost a parent to cancer will have a different insight and approach than a photographer who hasn’t had that experience. Similarly, a person born and raised in Africa wouldn’t consider certain elements of daily life as “exotic” in the way a foreigner would. This was part of the motivation for TIME using Devin Allen’s photography during the Baltimore Riots of 2015. It is one of the criticisms against Steve McCurry.

In early 2018, Women Photograph conducted a small survey of A1 Lead Photo Bylines by Gender of 8 major newspapers. Inspired by their effort, we took a similar look at some of the largest magazines. The results were dismal for women and the data provided an objective way to measure diversity.

Since contests dominate a large part of the photo industry marketing landscape, we thought we’d do a similar diversity breakdown of some of the contests that we recommended this year.

Here’s one we didn’t recommend based on the lack of significant prize money, but an example of a relatively diverse jury:

CAP Prize

The Contemporary African Photography Prize is an annual award given to five photographers whose works “were created on the African continent or which engages with the Africa diaspora.”

  • 23 Judges
  • 7 Women (30%)
  • 10 People Of Color (POC) (43%)

And here are some of our recommended contests with a jury breakdown:

Instanbul Photo Awards

  • 9 Judges
  • 1 Woman (11%)
  • 0 POC (0%)

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

  • 6 Judges
  • 3 Women (50%)
  • 1 POC (16%)

Leica Oskar Barnack Award

  • 5 Judges
  • 1 Woman (20%)
  • 0 POC (0%)

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

  • 9 Judges
  • 4 Women (44%)
  • 0 POC (0%)

Audubon Photography Awards

  • 5 Judges
  • 2 Women (40%)
  • 1 POC (20%)

Disclaimer: I am a judge for this award

Prix Virginia

  • 7 Judges
  • 4 Women (57%)
  • 0 POC (0%)

Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards

  • 5 Judges
  • 3 Women (60%)
  • 3 POC (60%)

The World Press Photo Contest (The News and Documentary Specialist Jury)

  • 5 Judges
  • 3 Women (60%)
  • 2 POC (40%)

You can reasonably question whether jury diversity matters for a nature photography contest (I don’t think you can make a credible argument for disciplines like documentary or portrait photography). On the other hand, seeing a women or POC on the jury might inspire more women and people of color to take nature photos. Homogeneous structures tend to maintain themselves.

Secondly, appearances matter. What would it say about the Prix Virginia – a contest only open to women – if the jury was predominantly male? Or if the CAP Prize was selected by an all-white jury?

Photography captures everyone’s experience. Contest juries should reflect that diversity.

Top image: Istanbul Photo Awards Jury 2016

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 8 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Consider the Photo Contest Jury – PhotoShelter Blog – The Click
  2. Tim Rock at 6:08 pm

    I worry less about jury composition than I do about preconceived notions the judges may have. I knew one nature contest that asked the same core of judges back every year and then added a few new ones to round out the panel. Three of the judges had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t a good nature photo if a person or model was in the photo, even if the person was just an element of composition or interacting (i.e. snorkeling with a sea turtle, etc). They immediately trashed the image without judging any of the other merits if a person was in the shot. Women have a different eye than men and the more international diversity (not just skin color) the more perspectives that come to the fore. I would favor any contest that has a diverse panel that brings judges with OPEN MINDS to the event.

  3. Lola at 3:30 am

    Excellent article and thanks for highlighting the Taylor Wessing Prize issue as well. You are spot on in your analysis. Diversity matters, representation matters, and the way we see the world is different. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of a “joyful” black person win any contests. The energy is different when a person of color photographs another person of color.

    I’ve been fighting this diversity issue for years, especially as a professional travel photographer and getting assignments in a field dominated by white men (topic for another blog, another day), and would gladly contribute to that discussion!

    Here’s hoping 2019 brings more change.

  4. Bob at 9:35 pm

    Not clear what this outdated article and comments are all about. With RARE exception, every competition I’ve seen in the past three years – and I’ve checked out many – is either (a) dominated by women judges, (b) dominated by diverse judges, or (c) dominated by diverse women judges. In fact, I have seen many with just one “token man” and some juries comprised 100% of women (though I have rarely seen anything close to a jury dominated by men, and never 100% men). In addition, the winners of competitions and photo awards have been equally diverse, interestingly, despite the fact that competitions are supposed to be blind. So please update the article, Photoshelter, and shame on you for pandering. And commenters, don’t default to your own prejudices – check out current competitions and reality today. Finally, NO competition should be ABOUT diversity – it should be about excellence, vision, talent, and the strength of an image.

      • Bob at 7:12 pm

        Alright. But first, state YOUR agenda. After all, most thinking adults know that articles can be written in various ways to promote a point of view. So, do you think “diversity” should take precedence over everything else with regard to jurors and prizes/awards/grants given? If so, state your agenda openly: “I think ‘people of color’ should be heavily favored and promoted, to the exclusion and/or minimalizing of caucasian people, in all art-related matters (i.e. galley shows, competitions, awards, grants). A person’s race or ethnicity should be the primary means by which such decisions are made.” Allen, why not honestly state your agenda upfront for all PhotoShelter competition announcements, so that we all know what the rules are? On a related note, if there are competitions in the photo community in Uganda, do you think that caucasian people rule there? Same for Japan, Korea, and China, or any place in the world, for that matter. For some reason, you want to make this ALL ABOUT race and identity politics. I, on the other hand, stand by my statement 100% – NO competition should be ABOUT diversity – it should be about excellence, vision, talent, and the strength of an image. I accept all people irrespective of race, religion, sexual orientation, color, height, weight, etc. I care only if the person has talent, and may the best talent win. That’s it. AND I have lived my life that way and put my money where my mouth is, as has my entire family. So, if you disagree with that, then speak openly about your own agenda, especially with regard to the mission of PhotoShelter. And if you still want me to dig through past competitions to prove my point, I will do so at my earliest opportunity.

        • Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:11 pm

          My “agenda” is stated in the article, which never argues for diversity for diversity’s sake. An all white, western jury judging a PJ contest, for example, is going to have a point of view influenced by their experience. Africa and Asia are exotic. These juries influence the ones after them – so pain and suffering become nearly required to win.

          I’ve written about photo contests for 7 years – which granted you are probably unaware of. But to put accuse me of not being transparent about my thoughts on the matter is weak sauce. I’ve written thousands of words on the topic.

          I provided demographic info on some of the contests that we recommended. The recommendations were based largely on cash prize amount, so these contests arguably represent some of the biggest and most important in the industry. There are hundreds of contests out there, so I don’t disbelieve that you’re seeing diverse juries, but I’ve provided evidence and you haven’t.

          Also: we’re talking about contests. So while I appreciate the opportunity to debate the topic, I also acknowledge there are much more significant matters to consider. Happy Holidays, Bob in New York.

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