Exploring award-winning photography at the College Photographer of the Year competition

Mizzou’s journalism school has afforded me so many wonderful opportunities. Last year, I had the chance to meet Laura Ling and to interview Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. This week I got to meet Brian Stelter of the New York Times and Jason Kelly of Bloomberg. The highlight of my journalism-filled week, however, was attending the 68th College Photographer of the Year competition. Mizzou hosts the competition, which has thousands of entries from journalism students around the world.

This year’s judges came from some of the best news organizations in the U.S. I watched the judging for the feature and documentary categories of the competition. Watching professionals judge the photos was insightful. After awhile I found that I could intuitively predict which photos the judges would like the most. Here’s what I picked up on during the judging:

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1. Great photos tell a story

This year’s feature photo category had more than 1,100 entries. Judges viewed each entry for only one to three seconds before voting “in” or “out” on their clickers. After the first round, only around 80 feature photos remained. Before moving on to the second round, judges swept through the photos one more time in thumbnail view and occasionally made requests for any photos to be pulled back into the competition. The silver and bronze winners of the category were pulled back into the competition in this thumbnail viewing. It was clear that the photos were brought back in because the judges wanted to know more about them. The photo had told them the beginning of a story and now they wanted to know more.

In the documentary category, the importance of a story also became clear. The category asks for submissions which are “a long-form photographic essay or extended narrative story which portrays important contemporary concerns or social issues.” The judges quickly voted out entries that contained only a few photos. The winning entries also all focused on central characters; Each photo unveiled a new important detail about the subject of the photo story. The best entries didn’t need captions for the viewer to feel or to understand what the photos had to say. The gold place entry called “A Portrait of Domestic Violence” captured layered complexities of a family struggling to stay together through issues of domestic violence.

2. Photographers must be able to write

By the second or third round of judging for a category, the judges can ask for captions to be read for each photo. Time and time again, photos with a “bad” caption were voted out. One caption, for example, was a long paragraph written in first person about the photographer’s personal journey to take their photos. Several judges seemed frustrated, saying the caption should be about the subject of photo and not about the photographer. Judges also dismissed photos with captions that revealed nothing about a photo.

In contrast, they responded to photos with attention grabbing captions. The beginning of one caption read, “I’m going to kill somebody,” said Gage Winscott playfully as his mother Kayla sits nearby. The family lives with 10 other family members in Kayla’s parents two-bedroom house in Harrisburg, Missouri.” After the caption was read, all of the judges decided to keep the photo for the next round. The photo ultimately won second place in the feature category.

3. Some stories are better than others

The best documentary entries told a story the judges hadn’t seen before. A number of entries, for instance, followed a pregnant woman through birth. While birth is a beautiful thing in and of itself, the photo essays focusing on pregnancy didn’t reveal much about the subject other than that they were going to have a baby. My high school journalism adviser used to tell me that there’s a huge difference between a story about a dog biting a man and a story about a man biting a dog. Photographers have the unique opportunity of revealing something powerful about life through visuals. The winning stories ultimately showed the judges something new. Or showed something every day from a new perspective. The winning documentary entry seemed to tell the story of a typical family at first. Several frames in the entry though captured an instance of domestic abuse as it was happening. We have all seen families, we have not all seen what violence within a family looks like as it is occurring.

Every winner, the university also hosts the Pictures of the Year International competition. I can’t wait to attend and learn more about photography by observing the judges. I may not be capable of producing any photos that are remotely award winning now, but I can certainly learn about award-winning photography now and hope to apply what I’ve learned.

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