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The Vagaries of Photography Competition Judges

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens)

Keywords: judging, competition, contest, connie_cassinetto, via_the_lens

I recently entered six images into a local judged photography competition.  Of the six images, four were accepted for entry.  At the reception I was able to talk with one of the judges regarding one of my images that did not receive an award of any kind. I believed the image to be in the “possible award” category (yes, I know, we all believe that about our work!)  and so I asked the judge why my image was not found compelling enough to win an award. Note that I was not complaining as two of the four images of mine that were accepted did win awards and I was happy with that.  I think the judges, overall, did a good job of choosing images to be awarded.  I simply wanted a clarification from the judge on this particular image so that I could do better next time around.  His reply surprised me.  

He asked me if I had any more images like the one in the show.  I was confused and really did not know how to answer him. The image in question was a one-of-a-kind subject that was shot from a public place in Cuba.  I asked him what he meant and he said the image reminded him of the “American Gothic” piece (a painting by Grant Wood of a farm couple in Iowa). This confused me even more.  Then it started to dawn on me that he, and perhaps the other judge, thought the piece was a set-up image and that perhaps I had shot many different images that were similar to that scene with the same tone. I was actually dumb-founded when he told me this and I really did not know how to respond other than to say the image was one-of-a-kind and taken in Cuba.  The question I had of course was did his thought process affect his judging? Did he and the other judge give less serious consideration to the piece because they thought it was a “set-up” scene? I also wondered at that point if an image can, perhaps, be too perfect?  

I’ve entered many competitions and have often received an award so I am familiar with the idiosyncrasies of judges.  I have also volunteered in the past to work for the group that puts this particular competition on and had actually followed the judges around during one competition to assist them with their judging needs.  Doing this allowed me to learn a great deal about how judges operate in viewing and judging a competition so I was no stranger to odd ideas in judging.  But I had never heard any of the judges state the idea that an image can be too perfect. The people category in this competition, which this particular piece was entered into, was called “Human Experience.” It could be that, in this case, the judges discounted my image because it looked too perfect to be real, to be a “human experience” that really happened.  Indeed, the image in question, even to me, does seem to be an impossibility, although it really is a real image and something that I simply stumbled upon, as the saying goes.  

The scene presented itself to a group of people, including me, that were walking in a public square in Cuba looking for possible photographic subjects. A dark colored door opened just in front of us and a young girl stepped out and stood in the doorway.  She simply looked out over the scene and at us and was without expression.  She was holding a broom and was dressed in a colorful outfit that was right out of a book or movie.  We almost ran as we wanted to get closer to her.  We began to snap away and were able to get several shots of the scene before a police officer strode toward us waving his hand for us to back away.  He went over to the young girl and motioned her inside and that was it.  The rest of our group, who had been straggling behind us, did not get the shot.   The scene was perfect and the image turned out perfect as well (at least as perfect as I could get it!).  But, apparently, at least to the judges for this competition the scene was so perfect that they did not believe it to be real.  I do know that judge’s choices are affected by their thought processes during judging.  I’ve heard a judge comment about an image and, even though I knew absolutely that their comment was incorrect, I could not say anything to set them straight as I was only a staff person there to help them though the process.  Competition judges vary in their approach and I do know that every competition judge that I’ve had any experience with does take their judging experience seriously.  Judging a competition is hard work and there is always someone who is not happy with the results.  I do appreciate the hard work that all competition judges do.  In this case, I simply wanted to know why the image of the young girl was not compelling enough to win an award and the reply to my question was somewhat confounding to me.  He was not able to provide me with any other comments on the piece other than that there “was nothing wrong with it at all.”  


Cuban Girl in Doorway
Click for an enlargement


There does appears to be a lot of confusion in photography (this has actually been going on for years) about what is real and what isn’t real in an image and who’s done what to what image. Sometimes it’s the viewing public who is confused and sometimes it’s other photographers.  The line between what is “real” and what is not “real” seems to be important to some people (including photographers) when viewing and assessing images.  It’s somewhat annoying to me as, generally, non-photographer artists are not put under this microscope.  There really is no way in a competition for a judge to know if a scene is a set-up scene or a “real” scene unless it is obvious.  I guess that begs the question of should a judge put more weight toward a scene that is not “set up” unless the entry criteria state that will be the case? 

So, for me the question remains, can an image be too perfect to be “real,” at least in the mind of a competition judge?  Should we ensure, in some way, that the viewer will know that our image is a “real” image, not contrived to look real?  And, how would we do that in every case?  I think I’ll be pondering these questions for some time to come.   I’ll also be pondering whether what the judge said about the image was a complement or a snub, I’m still not clear on that one. Even though the 1930 “American Gothic” painting has become a timeless icon, it has also been parodied quite often through time.

(9 Votes )

Originally written on March 19, 2019

Last updated on March 19, 2019


Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on November 27, 2019

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Hi Peter. The really weird thing about this image is the photographers had no part in it at all, rather than to see her from a distance and take off toward her. It does look, even to me, like some kind of set-up or posed shot, but it was not in any way that at all. Real world Cuba.

Peter Oosthuizen (petermo) on November 26, 2019

Here in South Africa the majority of the camera clubs are affiliated to the Photographic Society of South Africa (PSSA) and all salons are under the auspices of the PSSA. There are pretty rigid rules for Street photography - no digital manipulation i.e. addition or removal of items and images are generally marked down if there appears to be posing. To me it's clear that the little girl saw the photographers (you mention a group) but she looks shy and a bit unnerved rather than posed. It's a beautiful image of which you should be proud.

Richard Smiley (Smiley1) on June 30, 2019

I thought yours of the Cuban girl was outstanding and in no way does it remind me of the American Gothic. As you say it is a scrap shoot when you are going up against other great shots. The shot shows your skill,,there is million ways this shot could have gone south and sometime a bit of good luck helps too but the bottom line is that you made it happen. If this were my shot it would be hanging on the wall. I even liked the door latch of all things.

Bob Brand (Bob32) on May 28, 2019

Over the last 40+ years I have been a member of three different camera clubs and have participated in dozens of club competitions where experienced judges critique member’s images as they are projected onto a screen. I concur that judging is highly subjective. An image one judge likes does not impress another judge. Some of my images that I thought were great didn’t get the awards I thought they deserved! However, over time I’ve learned not to be concerned over an image not being looked upon with favor by a judge. Overall, I have learned a great deal from the judge’s comments. As a result my photography has greatly improved, and I usually do well in the competitions. Now as to your image of the girl, I believe that it looks staged, primarily because of the broom and the way it’s held. I suspect that the judge might also have felt that this image was too cutesy to be entered into a competition category named “Human Experience.” I would expect more dramatic images to be entered into such a competition. It may be that your image was up against tough competition.

Frederic Hore (voyageurfred) on May 26, 2019

Congrats Connie on a lovely image. The perplexed look on the child, her pose, and the clothing she is wearing as you point out, made her a superb subject. I sympathize with your thoughts about the vulgarities and subjective nature of judging. I've entered contests in the past, and even won a few awards, which surprised me considering how many contenders there were. It's always a crap shoot! [space] You didn't mention what were the judges credentials. Were they established professionals of some repute, or local photographers that were known for certain types of imagery (example: weddings, landscapes, architecture, fashion, etc.) Depending upon their background and field of study, some bias may enter in their judging. [space] Juried contests with three or more judges using established criteria are the best. At a camera club I have judged at here in Montreal, the marks were awarded based on three criteria: 1. Adherence to theme, 2. Composition and 3, Technique. Was this how your images were judged in the contest you entered? [space] As to a "perfect" image, ahh - that's truly in the eye of the beholder! I've been to many competitions and judged a few as previously mentioned, and honestly, judges are loathe to give a mark past 90 (out of 100). It's not like an exam with questions that can be either right or wrong. Someone viewing your image can interpret it in many different ways. [space] Looking at the image you have submitted above, on my colour corrected screen, I find the wood door frame to be a tad too dark. And seeing just a bit more of the interior behind her would have told more of a story... perhaps. I also find the child to be pretty central in the image. But that's me. [space] Perhaps someone else would say, her being front and center, is indeed a perfect composition! See what I mean about the subjective nature of viewing an image? As long as you are happy with the image, that's really all that counts. I wouldn't loose sleep looking for validation by a "judge." Cheers from Montreal

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on March 29, 2019

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Larry, thanks for the confirmation that the image could cause someone to think it was staged. I wish I had the creativity and artistic insight to stage such an image! I don't plan to let the judges thoughts take anything away from the image, for me it still remains an incredible moment in time. I can only wonder what that little girl's life is like that she looks so adult and so serious.

Larry Cador (lcador) on March 27, 2019

Photo contests at best are a crap shoot. Most have poorly stated thematic expectations and are judged based on no clearly defined objective and published criteria. Imagine judging a synchronized swimming competition using similar set of subjective criteria as most often used in photo contests.. When asked, the judge said, I know a winning photo when I see it but damned if I can list its attributes." Photo contests and judging will never be taken seriously until judging criteria become far more external and transparent. A similar issue exists with the "editor's choices" and other monthly selections published on Nikonians. I believe it would be very instructive if the "selectors" would list the attributes which guided their selections. As to the issue of your photo being not real or more correctly,"staged." As we know, many award winning and internationally renowned photos were staged. To object to such as a reason for rejection, unless clearly stated in the contest guidelines, is disappointing. To be honest, however, your photo does look staged and as such is diminished in my eyes. Part of the art of photography is to produce photos that do not look staged even if they are. If one has the poor luck to capture a photo that looks staged even if it wasn't then delight in all the other times that fate smiled your way and you got the shot.

William Schleuse (Bill in Austin) on March 21, 2019

“I do know that judge’s choices are affected by their thought processes during judging.” Yes, how could it be otherwise? A fine question to ponder with any human behavior is “What were they thinking?” Often not possible to know, but a useful exercise. I think the plain fact is, that despite our insatiable appetite for competition, photography is not very well suited to be a competitive sport! Yes, jurors must select work to be included in a show, and entrants deserve to know what the show’s about and who will be the juror(s), but we can never know everything. Jurors may put together what they see as a coherent show from what’s entered, and a particular image may not “fit.” Or, as appears to be the case with your delightful image, erroneous assumptions may be made. I have a favorite image from the 1990s, shot on transparency film, and slightly underexposed to “pop” the colors, printed as an Ilfochrome - never digitized or edited. It’s been in a number of juried shows,including one name national show. However, after digital editing became common it’s never been in another juried show! Many people who see the print assume it was “Photoshopped,” though by today’s standards it in no way looks “over processed.” So yes, all jurors, and all viewers, bring their assumptions to the table! Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on March 21, 2019

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Russel, I think your comment on what people expect from a child in a photograph is interesting. We like to see laughing, happy children, not a child with a serious look. For me, the look from this child was really fascinating and provided lots of thought for a story from the viewer's perspective. Was this some child-slave? Or was she just playing with the broom and stepped outside to see what was going on? She never wavered with her somber look as the police officer pushed her into the building and shut the door. David, you are right about more "prize worthy images then there are prizes to award." There were many wonderful photographs in the show. As I said, I know how difficult judging can be and I was not complaining as I had received two awards. I think anyone who gets accepted into a show is a "winner" with their art. This show had 400 entries and only 180 or so were accepted due to space limitations for hanging art. Henry, I believe that people do view painted art and photography art differently. I constantly say to people that I am not a photo-journalist or a documentarian, I consider myself a fine art photographer.

Henry Sautter (hsautter) on March 20, 2019

Photography is an Art and should be considered as such. Do people (judges) look at a painting and their first reaction is "is it real" ... most likely not. Why should photography be required to be "not setup". Is waiting for the correct time of day, with clouds and a sunset considered a setup? I think not. Just because photography seems, to some, to be more technical in nature does that mean the process of creating an image invalidates the value of the image? Other art media can also be quite technical and that does not seem to be a primary criteria for image evaluation. The "American Gothic" image you mentioned was "setup" to depict the idea that the Artist (Grant Woods) wanted to portray. Why would this be invalid in the art of photography.

Russell Whittemore (rosewood_ltd) on March 20, 2019

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas. Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Thanks for your interesting insights on judging, Connie. They very much mirror my own experience and perceptions of the process. Judges, like everyone, else bring a diverse set of likes, dislikes, aesthetics, prejudice and bias to these events. Most are diligent and serious about being as objective as possible in the process, but it's often when confronted with images that are very close in artistic and technical quality that the judges individual preferences come to the fore as tie-breakers. One perception that could be operating here is that the child's serious demeanor could imply a staged portrait to some and the supposed loss of spontaneity would then be viewed as a negative from those who expect images of children to be expressive.

David Summers (dm1dave) on March 19, 2019

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Great image! One problem that judges have, is that there are usually many more prize worthy images then there are prizes to award. The final phase of any selection process is always choosing amongst a large group of “winner quality” images. An image rejected by one set of judges, could be the winner with another set of equally qualified judges. I think the comparison Grant Woods “American Gothic” is a great compliment. It would not get the attention it has, including copies & parodies, if it were not a great piece of art.