thoughts from a Fearless Awards curator
SCOTT LEWIS, a photographer based in Pennsylvania, shares his thoughts on being one of five curators for the selection of Fearless Awards for Round 5.
(note: the curators for Round 5 were Lewis, Brett Butterstein, Tony Hoffer, Christina Craft, and Davina Palik. Of course they were not allowed to enter their own images in Round 5)
Since I publicly questioned some of the Fearless image choices during the last round I thought I would step forward and give some thoughts on what I saw and why I made the choices I did as one of the curators of Round 5.
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This phrase was emblazoned across the front of a t-shirt once made for the Pictures of the Year International contest held annually at the University of Missouri. For those who don’t know, POYi is the oldest photojournalism contest in the world and is now one of the two most significant contests in the world of photojournalism. The t-shirt humorously showed the intensity and seeming futility of the competition, as well as literally echoing what you’d hear if you were in the darkened room in Tucker Hall during the judging. Hearing IN spoken by the judges was so rare it was downright startling. I had this soundtrack echoing through my head as I flipped through the more than 1,500 images submitted for this round of Fearless images. This to me is the standard of greatness. These are the odds and what it should take to be selected as the best of a group.
I have no idea what the final set of this round looks like and I’ll bet that there’s going to be more images there than I chose and many that I liked are likely not going to be included. What you’re seeing is not going to be universally agreed on by everyone on this curation team. Keep in mind that contests or curations like this are so subjective. There’s no right or wrong.
When I was in school and first watched POYi, I grumbled at how ignorant the judges were in by-passing certain images that “clearly” were great. As I kept watching over two weeks, I realized that these people had more experience than I did, had seen more than I had and had a better and deeper understanding of what made a truly unique image. Their experience framed their choices and that worth considering and thinking about. Then factor in the taste or style aspect and you’ve got a big bag of opinions, not facts. So take these results with a grain of salt. If your work wasn’t chosen it doesn’t mean you’re not an unbelievably talented photographer and just because you were chosen doesn’t mean you’re done growing. They’re just the opinions of a few people with different tastes, biases, preferences, knowledge and experience. We are not being influenced by each other in discussion, which would radically change the final set.
I think this group regularly puts out such strong work that the bar had to be high. Really really high. Good was no where near good enough. Sometimes great wasn’t enough. The level of work that gets rewarded has to be extraordinarily high. To be taken seriously, we have to hold ourselves to the highest of standards, not just nice or perfectly competent work.
There were tons of images I would have personally been very happy to have made and many where there was nothing more you could have asked of the photographer – but in the end many of those just weren’t good enough to make the grade here. In the end I chose 72 images out of the more than 1,500 submitted. I could have/should have probably edited that a bit more. I chose images that relied entirely on aesthetics and had no real obvious or definably peak moments but were so utterly captivating, clever or beautiful that they couldn’t be denied. And I chose images that were entirely reliant on a great moment with lesser aesthetic strengths, and some gloriously had both.
What is Fearless….
I took the notion of Fearless to heart, literally. I looked for images that did one of several things, if not more than one to be considered Fearless.
Moments. I really tried to push all these images through a very fine screen. It couldn’t just be a simple peak moment or pretty light, it had to have heart and a spark. Images speak not just from their own power of the scene itself but also from the instincts, heart and commitment of the photographer. When I felt the heart of the photographer in an image it quickly rose above the rest. When an image was clearly the accomplishment of an openness of spirit, possibility and connectedness with the subjects a bell would go off and I’d be stopped in my tracks. These images showed a photographer in sync with the rhythms of the scene and an awareness and sensitivity to craft. A certain Fearlessness of capturing something honest, real and moving in a compelling way.
Beauty. Weddings are funny things in that they’re full of honest, raw emotion – which are not always “pretty” – as well as being about the beauty of being in love and loved. We put a lot of emphasis on beauty and the fantasy of beauty. But that’s obviously up for interpretation. There were lots of pretty pictures here but the ones I gravitated to were ones that did more than just show something as pretty. It had a wow factor, a factor that showed what true seeing was about to me. They went beyond just the surface beauty but hinted at or even boldly smacked you in the face of seeing beauty in unexpected ways. It showed a photographer who just wouldn’t accept what was presented to them. These images were made independent of or in spite of the obvious trends or established norms of pretty pictures. They took risks of all kinds and recognized the possibility of more.
Challenge. Great images evoke questions. They make me question my own ideas of a successful image or put me in a deeper search for the right words. Some images didn’t tell complete stories, which isn’t always as satisfying as it may sound, but were so filled with questions that they kept challenging me to decipher a puzzle or envision what’s going on or put myself into the feeling of the scene either by the power of the aesthetics or a raw human connection. A Fearless image can be loud, bold and dramatic or deceptively quiet and subtle but no less bold in it’s construction, effort and story. There were some really odd choices that I never would have made as a photographer that I had to reward. I was really inspired by so many images that reminded me of the myriad ways of seeing these events that often feel so formulaic. Images that challenged me reminded me of the need to constantly stay on your toes and never stop seeing, never give up on what seems to be undoable or reject something that doesn’t “work” without really trying. Risk is so rewarding when it fulfills on its promise and these images spoke to the need to never be satisfied and always stretch for more and be open to new ways of seeing even within ourselves. For me, the spirit of Fearless is about breaking out well-beyond what’s expected of us and what we expect of ourselves.
I was inspired…
There was so much to be moved by here. There were moments that just broke my heart or made me laugh out loud or images whose beauty and depth really challenged me and went well beyond the obvious. I was so thrilled to see so many photographers not just accepting what’s in front of them but clearly crafting and working a scene. Staying on your toes, with a keen sensitivity to subjects and patience for that one special sliver of possibility where “IT” all comes together in perfect harmony. Technique plays such a huge factor here. You’ve got to have a clear sense of technical demands from managing the light and moments in front of you as well as how you handle the post-processing.
Most all of my final selects showed a firm and sophisticated grasp of the technical concerns of photography both in how the situation was handled as well as the choices made in the post-processing phase. But most importantly they captured something captivating, beautiful, real, human and made me connect with these strangers or inanimate objects. Many images made the cut for me by a sliver of difference between it and another similar moment or image. Choosing images here is like a 100 meter race. We all know the guy who wins but no one ever hears about the guy who got second by tenths of a second. And this group produced a lot of world class second and third places but for me this was really all about finding those that separated themselves by that most minor of margins of difference.
I was frustrated…
Be hard on yourself. Be really hard on yourself. Ask yourself if this image truly belongs among the best of what Fearless photographers are producing. There were so many images with weak post-processing, clumsy cropping or run of the mill moments and scenes. Educate yourself. The bar is always getting higher which means we all need to put the pressure on ourselves to improve to challenge ourselves and never be content. Part of doing well in contests or curations like this is knowing what the expectations are and being the harshest of critics of your own work. And then you have to let go of those expectations and really be in tune with your sense of craft and vision and put forth images that speak from your heart and represent the world as only you see it.
Crop. Crop. Crop. I don’t think there’s anything sacred about the full frame image. If you really want to work only in full frame dimensions then you must be precise like a neurosurgeon in your original compositions. So many images could have been great but fell apart because of inattentive cropping or excessively loose framing to the point where the people were so diminished they became afterthoughts. Or the beautiful moment you saw was diminished and overpowered by the empty and unhelpful white space of a composition. Even several of my selects needed to be cropped, some desperately obvious. They made the grade for me due to the overwhelmingly strong moments captured and I really wanted to reward the most important decision of having captured something special.
When composing in camera or cropping later, get rid of annoying little stuff on the edges. Make sure everything on the edges are necessary cause if they’re not they’re likely to draw the eye away from the content you want to make most important. Without a strong moment, an image that lives and dies on aesthetics has to be crafted to perfection. Images that rely on moments have, in my opinion, more leeway on aesthetic or technical considerations but still must show a high level of skill and connectedness. The same goes for the post-processing techniques. There’s really no excuse for not having a firm control over the look of your final image. The technology is there and there’s enough tutorials out there to learn how to control the image. We’re in an era of no excuses.
In the end…
It was a real honor to have been asked to be a curator. Especially since so many here put my name up for consideration. So thanks to all of you and Huy for asking me to be a part and share. This was a great experience and I was reminded about what it takes, at this moment in time, to produce great work. I’m inspired and motivated and proud to be associated with everyone here.