Winners of the Sony World Photography Awards 2012 have been named, with American Mitch Dobrowner claiming the overall title of the L’Iris d’Or by the competition’s panel of nine judges.
We sat down with head judge W.M. Hunt prior to the awards ceremony, who kindly took time from preparing his speech to tell us what he looks for when evaluating an image as well as his thoughts on why curiosity is a key asset for every photographer.
Tell us… how does one even begin to judge a competition this size?
You hope that a collegial group of people. It’s very Roman. Divy it up and everybody agrees yes this should stay, no this should go. Eventually you get to a point where the question you start asking is, Is this image a winner? This is how you get down to a shorter number.
How much do you have to lobby for pictures you like?
I’ve never judged a competition where there’s been one, last angry man. Generally there is a consensus. There’s usually a consensus. You’re prepared to lobby. I think that in the final scheme of things, some of us may have argued that some pictures had more edge and belong higher than lower, but overall we largely agreed on who should make the cut.
There’s also something rather levelling about looking at pictures in the international group and realising that good pictures are good pictures everywhere.
How do you deal with criticism of your choices?
There will always be criticism. But I think people bear in mind that the jurors aren’t responsible for entering photos into a competition. You get what you’re given. So it’s pleasing if you dip into the pool and it’s full of good pictures.
When evaluating a photo, what are you looking for first?
The overriding consideration for me is that I’m looking for something I haven’t seen before. I want to be surprised and delighted. If I’ve seen it before, then it doesn’t have as much impact for me. I want to be excited by a picture.
There are all kinds of classic elements and graphic considerations to consider, but ultimately it comes down to a unique imagination that put that artist in that place and said, this is what I want to show you. It doesn’t happen very often.
Are you looking more for creativity and composition than technical excellence?
Imagination, every time. It’s the primary thing I look for. There is a tsunami of good pictures that have done everything correctly, but they’re less interesting than the great ones.
What are some of the common errors of the unsuccessful images?
Lack of originality. That covers everything: subject matter, a fear of being bold… a fear of being personal. I don’t like generic picture-making. You want compelling, as a judge.
I’m always conscious of how much I think photographers know about other things. Do they bring curiosity to their work. It’s curiosity as much as anything for me. It’s a strange kind of intelligence; if you’re really, really curious, I think you’re really, really smart.
Your curiosity is rewarded by learning things; it lets you be ambitious as an artist and informs your intelligence.
What’s been most surprising about the entries this year?
One thing is numbers: it’s staggering how many people enter. One of the good things is it gets increasingly diverse and international. It’s exciting to get more work from more places.
Of course, it’s also distressing to find so many unsuccessful entries amid all that. It amazes me how some people don’t challenge themselves enough, and I don’t know what they’re thinking with some of the pictures they enter.
In recent years we’ve seen Sony’s translucent mirror technology, the light field camera, Adobe’s Content-Aware move tool. How do you see new technology changing the way competitions are judged?
It’s about what they send in. I don’t care how they make it. It’s about the passion and intelligence behind the equipment, not the equipment.
But you knew I was going to say that! There’s a lead for you: Head judge says ‘just aim it!’
One tip I can share: if something’s a little off-centre, visually it can be more engaging against some of the more formal entries. In a past competition in the natural history category there were these yellow pictures of silkworms that looked like big balloons. You had no idea what they were. Yet we were intrigued and kept voting them to stay in through each round, and eventually they got second!
So using this example, in the nature category you expect to see the picture of the bug, but you don’t expect to see abstracts of silkworms. Try to surprise us!
Tell us a little about why you chose the winner.
I said earlier that I don’t take into account how someone did something, but in the instance of Mitch Dobrowner, we did. He shot pictures of storms and tornadoes. The pictures are striking and you’re admiring them until you think, wait a minute: this guy is standing in the middle of a tornado with a medium format camera? Get out of there!
He’s making these stunning, clearly composed black and white landscape images in the vein of Ansel Adams, but what he’s photographing is this maelstrom of energy, and that’s what we liked. There was a weird juxtaposition of all this formal sensibility and this energy… he was trying to harness something that was un-harnessable.