Some of my pupils like entering photographic competitions. They are all competent enough, but one is doing a lot better than the others.
At the time of writing, the more successful pupil has reached the final three in her age group in a major photographic competition attracting nearly three thousand entries. Her friends tell her how lucky she is.
A few months ago she entered her first photographic competition.
The questions arising from this are, what makes a winning photograph? How do you catch the judges’ eye and separate your work from all the others?
Some time ago we ran a workshop on creativity in relation to being a successful artist. What we concluded that the most of the successfully creative artists have a number of characteristics in common.
Firstly, they have a level of talent that sets them apart.
Secondly, they have a depth of knowledge which allows them to formulate a response to the subject that sets them apart.
Thirdly, they are able to realise their idea in a skilful manner.
Fourthly – timing.
Successful talented people are able to read the semiotic messages of the audience that they are presenting their work to. If you’ve ever looked at a piece of art and wondered why that is considered to be good, or valuable, then perhaps you are not the person it was created to impress. Although that may seem elitist, or patronising, it is nevertheless true. If you can’t see why an art collector might pay a substantial amount of money for an installation that requires its own gallery to simply to store it, then you just aren’t the market it was designed for.
The same is true of prize winning photography. You simply have to give the judges what they are looking for, in the manner that that the judges expect.
How many times must a semi-competent photographer hear the phrase, ’you were lucky to get that shot’? Although there are times when it does seem that luck plays a part in the image, it’s a much smaller part than most people would imagine. In the summer of 2013, on our family holiday to Scotland we saw thirteen Minke Whales, three Orca, numerous dolphins, a few porpoises and many, many seals. Had we seen any of these things from our home in Buckinghamshire, then it really would have been lucky, but as we were on a mission to see cetaceans, it reduces the ‘luck’ element substantially if you go to the place, or places, that you are likely to see them. Once in the right place, patience places a far greater role than luck.
If I wanted to enter a landscape photographic competition, Buckinghamshire is probably not the most dramatic place to take vast sweeping vistas, so perhaps I would go somewhere else to take the photo, or concentrate on the small details of the landscape that I can do more easily from home. On the other hand, perhaps I could select a landscape from my own collection which I had taken previously, and (the rules of the completion allowing), submit that. Luck doesn’t enter the equation. Rather it is knowledge, experience and resources that lead to success.
In the case of my student, the path to her first competition success seems very clear with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.
It was a local competition for young people and my student fell into the young end of the 15-18 age group. As a small club competition the number of entries for her age bracket was about forty, each competitor being allowed to make two entries.
The first shot was of some model soldiers, shot very close-up, with very limited depth of field, dark vignetting around the edges and with an out of focus poppy in the background.
As a shot this was a clear development of an idea that we had been developing in class, carried out very well. Not only did it show talent, but it grew directly out of the knowledge she’d gained studying her subject. So here we have points 1 and 2 above.
The realisation of the shot (point 3) was done, not only in a technically skilful way, but in a way that an experienced camera club judge would recognise, and respond to. With the photograph, she was ‘speaking’ the same language as the judge, a point lost on many of the young people in the competition (including others that I taught!).
And for point 4, above, the competition was held just before remembrance day!
This photograph placed second.
The second entry was of a model walking away, down a path in the woods. Taken at a slight angle, again with limited depth of field and vignetting, this was converted to monochrome. Again it spoke directly to the photographic preconceptions of the judge.
The realisation and editing of the shot made it stand out starkly against the backdrop of the others in the completion, including the shot that came second.
This photograph placed first.
Creativity is a skill. It may come in bursts of inspiration, but for the vast, vast majority of creative people, it is the result of hard work. This work results in a body of knowledge, skill and experience that brings success.
My fifteen year old pupil might seem an exception to this. How can she possibly have the experience, or the time to have put in this hard work. There are two points that are relevant here. The first is that she is picking (or being guided to pick) her competitions carefully. Just as you would never put a novice boxer (no matter how strong, talented or committed) against an established and experienced champion, it would be wrong to encourage her to enter high profile competitions at this early stage of her career. Even if there was a good chance she would do well, the more sensible and long term route is to build up over a series of events that are designed to bring success and build confidence, competence and experience.
The second point leads from the first, but first an aside. To be clear, this pupil’s work is her own work. Anyone who has visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition will have read a caption under a photograph that reads something like this, “It’s been my ambition to photograph capuchin monkeys for years. This shot was taken from our hide, with a Canon 5D m111, and a EF 200-400”, says Michael, aged 9.
It would be really easy to say to any young person, ‘just press the button now!’ It would also be completely dishonest if they were to claim credit for the shot that you had created for them. Around the year 2000, I had the opportunity to bring into the studio a young boxer called Michael Sprott. After setting up the shot, I supervised the processing of the film and then the printing of the final image.
A month or so later a student announced that ‘his’ portrait had won a prize in a local camera club competition. When asked, he could not point to any part of the process that had been his work and not mine.
So, the second point that I’d make is that of the role of the mentor in the creative process. There are those pupils who show exceptional talent in a particular field. Talent in itself is no guarantee of success, but often is just one of three aspects. The second aspect for young people is a supportive home background. To bring out talent in any field requires a lot of financial and emotional input from the home. The third aspect is that of mentor. This is different from teacher: more akin to personal sports coach. The mentor is the person with the expert knowledge and experience that the pupils, no matter how creative needs to direct effort of the desired outcome.
For her current competition entry, my pupil has made it to the point where, at minimum, she will achieve local press attention, she gets a trip to London to the Awards ceremony and gets an achievement to put on her CV that makes her really standout, no matter which direction she wants to go after school.
Her photograph builds directly on work we have been doing in class for the last eighteen months. It is the clear synthesis of the work of two established artists, but made her own and very much in keeping with the theme of the competition as well as a direct tie-in to current events and changes in UK legislation.
At the time of writing I do not know how she will do. For the next week or so, I can’t even name the competition or mention the organisation running it.
Whatever the outcome, it’s a great achievement, but one where luck has played no part at all.