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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2008-02-27

Judging POYi: I am not a moron!
Brad Mangin looks back on judging 18,000 photographs over six days in Columbia, Missouri.

By Brad Mangin

Photo by Phoebe Sexton

Photo by Phoebe Sexton

From left: Jeanie Adams-Smith, Ruth Fremson, Brad Mangin and Wen Huang choose the Newspaper Photographer of the Year while looking at contact sheets of the finalists during the POYi judging in Columbia, Missouri on February 22, 2008.
The email arrived on December 21, 2007. Subject: "Invitation to judge POYi." The words that followed stunned me: "Greetings from Pictures of the Year International. My name is Rick Shaw and I am the director for the international photojournalism program. It is my privilege to invite you to participate on the judging panel for the 65th annual Pictures of the Year International competition (Newspaper and General Divisions)."

Holy cow. Was he serious? I immediately called Rick and told him I would be honored to judge POYi. I would not be going to spring training to cover the Cactus League till the end of February, so this fit perfectly into my schedule. I knew this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would help me learn a lot and grow as a photographer. Having the chance to look at thousands of photographs over a six-day period with a panel of three other judges was a chance I wanted to take advantage of.

After the initial wave of excitement I began to have many doubts. Who the Hell was I to sit in a dark room at the University of Missouri- the educational birthplace of North American photojournalism education- and tell hard working photographers that their images were good or bad? Sure, I have opinions about what makes a good photograph just like everyone else. But are my opinions worth anything?

I look at many pictures every day, both online and in the five daily newspapers that I subscribe to. I have a museum-quality gallery in my home containing over 100 matted, framed and signed 11 x 14 prints from friends and colleagues. I collect photography books and just ordered a new bookcase for my living room to give a larger home to my growing collection that now totals close to 500. I started with the Day in the Life series while in college and have just added Magnum Magnum and Ballet in the Dirt: Baseball photography of the 1960s and 70s by Neil Leifer.

I was well aware of the history of POYi. I got my first POY book (#9) while I was in college over 20 years ago. I always dreamed of having one of my pictures in the book. Of course, to get published in the POY book I would have to make a good picture and then actually enter the contest! I think I entered once or twice back then, although I can hardly remember. Needless to say I never won anything and never got published in the book.

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

Brad Mangin's book collection contains almost all of the POY books.
Over the last 15 years I have never been a real contest person. I used to love entering the annual Baseball Hall of Fame contest, especially since it was specifically held to honor photographs of the game I love and shoot so much. I also enter a few pictures every year into our local annual contest put on by the San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association. I never win, but it is fun to go to the annual awards dinner in April and see old friends and look at the winners.

I have always admired the great newspaper photographers who have won the coveted title of Newspaper Photographer of the Year. The first winner of this prestigious award that I was ever aware of was Steve Ringman of the San Francisco Chronicle (now with The Seattle Times) who won for the second time in his career in 1986. This was extra cool for me since I grew up in the Bay Area and was able to see his pictures in the paper every day. Back then I had no clue how this title was given out, what POY was and who judged such a contest. 22 years later I was about to find out.

Getting the chance to go to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri last week was like going to the Hall of Fame. This is where it all started. Having the opportunity to visit the campus and look at 18,000 photographs over six days with three other judges was going to be a fun and wild ride.

We all like to think we know what a good photograph is. Photography is very subjective. You do not have to be a photographer to think you know what a good or a bad picture looks like. This is both a good thing and a bad thing (especially in some newsrooms). Over the years I have enjoyed questioning judges (behind their backs of course!) why they awarded a prize to a certain picture and not to another (usually one of mine). What goes through a judge's head? Are they all complete morons?

Photo by Brad Mangin

Photo by Brad Mangin

Brad Mangin's living room contains an over-crowded bookcase full of photography books and part of his photo gallery (curated by Jim Merithew) that contains over 100 signed prints throughout his home.
Well, after this past week I am sure there are many photographers all over the world who think that I, along with my judging colleagues (Jeanie Adams-Smith, Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University; Ruth Fremson, staff photographer at The New York Times; Wen Huang of the Xinhua News Agency in Beijing) are all morons. And that is cool. I can live with it. This is a very small price for me to pay for the incredible benefits I gained by spending a week learning from my fellow judges and the photographers all over the world who entered this contest and taught me more about photojournalism through their pictures than I have learned in my previous 20 years in the business.

There are many types of photojournalists in the world. Some of them do not enter contests and could care less about them. Some of them enter for fun, as a way of looking back on their year to see how they have done. Some of them are obsessed with contests and reach a very unhealthy level of anger and conspiracy theories when they or their good friends don't win.

As the contest results started trickling out each day on the POYi website (http://www.poyi.org) I know there were photographers all over the world who were happy (the winners), those who were bitter (the ones who did not win), and those who did not care. There were photographers and photo editors who liked some of our decisions and some who hated them. The fun thing is that all of them had different opinions- like the four judges. I talked to friends who had vastly different views from the decisions I made individually and the decisions we made collectively.

How are our opinions about photography formed? I go back to a sociology class I took at San Jose State over 20 years ago. I struggled to get a C in the class, but I remember the studies about how we as individuals form the opinions that our decisions are based upon as we get older in life. We are a product of our surroundings and our environment.

I started out as a newspaper shooter and have been a full time freelance sports photographer for the past 15 years. I have never traveled abroad (I went to Canada once to shoot minor league baseball for Upper Deck in 1992). I am not overly impressed with serious pictures from an exotic foreign land. I have no clue how difficult it is to make those pictures- and while judging a contest I do not care. I simply want to see good pictures. I have been exposed to way too much death in my life, so I hate pictures from funerals and of people dying from some awful disease. Emotional black and white pictures from a third world country of people dying from horrible disease will not get my vote most of the time. Sorry.

Photo by Zach Honig / PopPhoto.com

Photo by Zach Honig / PopPhoto.com

Brad Mangin judges the sports categories during the POYi judging in Columbia, Missouri on February 17, 2008.
I like real moments involving real people. I like clean backgrounds and nice light. I know what I like when I see it. Sometimes I might not be great at articulating my thoughts (just ask anyone who was in Columbia last week who heard my comments over the microphone) but I am pretty rigid in my standards and do not like changing my mind.

My judging colleagues all have different backgrounds, which made for so many interesting discussions. I had never met any of them till we got to Columbia, but I learned a lot about them and their opinions on photojournalism over the week of judging.

Jeanie Adams-Smith is a photographer and college professor who used to work the foreign picture desk at the Chicago Tribune. She has published several books of her work and has an amazing passion for photojournalism and picture stories.

Ruth Fremson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning globetrotting photographer who has been all over the world for the Associated Press and The New York Times. She knows more about foreign issues and serious reporting than most people I know; yet she has no clue who Tina Fey is.

Wen Huang was born in Beijing and was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. She has worked all over the world as a photographer and picture editor and served as a judge for many prestigious contests like World Press Photo.

Needless to say we all had different opinions as we looked at 18,000 pictures over the six days of judging. This was both educational and frustrating as Hell. This is also how life is everywhere in our business- from the classroom to the newsroom. However, it is during the judging of a contest like POYi that such different opinions can be fun, frustrating and scary as our decisions will quickly leak outside of Gannett Hall and make people happy and sad. Our decisions will help photographers get raises and new jobs. Our decisions might keep photographers from getting laid off.

The weight of our decisions and the ripple effects they would cause on the careers of the entrants all over the world weighed greatly on me and caused me many waking hours in the middle of the night at the Candlewood Suites.

It has often been said that if you took the same set of pictures in a contest and had them voted on by a different set of judges you would have a completely different set of winners. I will add to this theory. I claim that you could take the same set of pictures and the SAME judges and have different winners the NEXT DAY!

My opinions varied from day to day. As the week grew longer and I looked back at our winners on the POYi website I felt good about them in general, but I often wavered on my own opinions. I wondered why I had fought so hard with my colleagues for a certain picture to win. I wondered why I had not fought so hard AGAINST my colleagues, allowing their opinions to overrule mine. Sometimes I would fight so hard for an image I loved to win a first place award, only to give up and be too exhausted to fight for a second place winner in the same category. Working with three other judges is such a give and take. I know this sounds like a cliché but it is true.

No matter how frustrating the process can be for we judges it would be very boring if we all agreed on every winner in every category. Can you imagine if everyone agreed with me? It would be awful. Every winner would be shot with a long lens and have a clean background with great light surrounding a nice moment. Every winner would be in color, tell a story and be in focus. There would be lots of baseball, no dead people and a happy ending.

Photo by Phoebe Sexton

Photo by Phoebe Sexton

From left: POYi coordinator Rick Shaw, Wen Huang, Jeanie Adams-Smith, Ruth Fremson and Brad Mangin look at the final portfolios for the Newspaper Photographer of the Year award in Columbia, Missouri on February 22, 2008.
Good thing for everyone I had three other judges to work with!

There were very few selections that we all agreed upon. News Picture Story first place and Spot News first place were some of the very few winners that all four of us agreed were a slam dunk to win the prize. Sometimes one picture or set of pictures was so far and away the obvious choice that even I had to agree with the other judges. This was also true when we selected the winner for the Community Awareness Award. Three of us loved the first place winner in Sports Action and one of our judges hated it. I hated the first place winner in Feature Picture. It was a wonderful picture but it did not fit my definition of a feature picture. To me a good feature picture is a slice of life. Not, as a friend of mine said when he saw that picture, "a slice of death."

Because I am sports photographer I was really looking forward to judging the categories that involved sports- especially Sports Action. I was going to make sure that we picked winners that were worthy of being called a great action picture. I have heard stories about how judges have to look at so many pictures that they only choose pictures that are "different."

As we judged the sports action category I began to realize that every cliché I had heard from other judges in the past was beginning to become true with me- and I fought it hard. I saw so many pictures of football players flying through the air and basketball players dunking that they all looked the same. These were wonderful pictures shot by hard working photojournalists that would be terrific for the next days' newspaper. However, in a contest like this you start looking for images that are truly unique and special.

I became the butt of my own bad joke when in the middle of the 1,000 or so sports action images flying by me during the first round of judging I saw two pictures of mine that were entered on my behalf by my editors at Sports Illustrated. They both depicted Barry Bonds hitting career home run #756 in San Francisco on a very special night for me as he set the all-time single season home run record. I am very proud of these pictures. I worked hard to get them and they eventually got published. So many thoughts went through my head as my pictures were voted out so fast. OUT! OUT! I could begin to feel the pain of all the photographers who had worked so hard in 2007. My pictures had NO CHANCE. I had done a good job in recording this news story- this big event in sports. My editors were happy with the pictures. I was happy with them. However, there ain't a chance in Hell they would ever win a contest. They just aren't winning pictures. (Don't worry- if for some reason my pictures were good and made it far in the contest I would not vote in the category).

Photo by Phoebe Sexton

Photo by Phoebe Sexton

A general scene of the POYi judging in Columbia, Missouri on February 22, 2008.
When the week was over I was exhausted, sad, and ready to move on. I was proud of the job our group of judges did during the long week of judging. I learned so much during the process from my fellow judges that I hope I will have a different outlook on my photography when I start shooting spring training games in Arizona this week.

I had a wonderful time in Columbia. I met some great people- especially Rick Shaw (Director of Pictures of the Year International) who does an amazing job putting on this contest. It is his full time job and he works all year to make sure POYi is run fairly and honestly for everyone. I finally had a chance to eat the wonderful pizza at Shakespeare's and enjoy burgers at Booches.

It was fun to get to judge in an open environment with students and professionals watching the entire process. I would encourage everyone with a serious interest in photojournalism to make the trek to Columbia one day to watch the judging. If contests are important to you and you want to unlock some secrets of what goes through the judges heads I recommend going. If you are not a contest person but want to learn more about what makes a great picture story or just look at some amazing photography I would recommend the trip.

Even though I have never won a POYi award, and I probably never will, I feel like I won an award even greater. I had the honor and privilege to view and judge all of your pictures. I cannot thank you enough for allowing me that opportunity.


(Brad Mangin is a freelance photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-founder of SportsShooter.com. You can see his member page here: http://www.sportsshooter.com/brad and his personal website here: http://www.manginphotography.com)

Related Links:
POYi
Pictures of the Year Judging Begins in Columbia
Virginian-Pilot photographer takes first at POYi contest

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