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|| News Item: Posted 2002-03-30

Leading Off: Judging the Best of Photojournalism Contest
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Horacio Villalobos

Photo by Horacio Villalobos
Can sports action photography survive in the documentary-oriented world we now find our profession?

It used to be newspaper photographers modeled themselves after Neil Leifer, John Zimmerman, Walter Iooss, Jr., James Drake and Herb Scharfman if they covered sports for their local paper.

The grainy look of Tri-X shot at 1600 developed in Acufine wasn't so much a "style" as it is these days as it was the reality of shooting a Roosevelt High football game at old Radcliffe Stadium in Fresno.

Flying bodies, crashing helmets and players exulting in the end zone with a grimacing, emotional expression was the ultimate sports action photograph.

But today's reality is our profession is expecting more.

Award winning photography has to be "evocative" and "complex" and "layered". And most importantly, it has to have a message.

W. Eugene Smith and Cartier-Bresson meet the Sporting News!

I recently had the honor of serving on the judging panel for the National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism Contest. The experience was not only enlightening and educational but also inspirational.

Viewing over 23,000 images in 6 days was grueling. But it gave me a chance to observe the thinking behind the judging of a high-profile international contest and what it takes to be a winner.

In the weeks leading up to the BOP judging I began to wonder if I would be the bastard son that shows up at the family reunion, especially in light of my often critical opinions on past Pictures of the Year winners.

When the judging began at the Poynter Institute on March 17, most of my fears and doubts fell away as I waded into reviewing the entries with fellow judges Brian Storm (MSNBC), Cheryl Hatch (AP), Michele Stephenson (TIME) and Horacio Villalobos (Buenos Aires' Diario Popular).

There was a lot of give and take. There was a lot of discussion. And there were definitely different tastes and opinions.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Detroit Free Press

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Detroit Free Press
The most difficult task of the week was reliving the events of Sept. 11 through the judging of the "Attack on America" categories. After just the first 40 minutes of seeing that horrible day replayed over and over and over we had to take a break. Emotionally it was hard. The images were strong. We were drained and it was barely 9:30 in the morning.

But I think the break helped us gather strength and re-focus our emotions and we plunged ahead very quietly at first. Then we started talking out our observations on the images flashing on the screen and eventually sharing our feelings and thoughts that these photographs pulled from our souls.

On Wednesday, my big day arrived: the sports categories.

It was no secret that the "bastard son at the family reunion" was there to help most with one thing: sports.

There were over 1,300 images entered in the Sports Action category. I had no grand illusions that I could single handedly bring back recognition to that style of sports photography I studied and loved: Leifer's "Ali - Liston" or Iooss' "The Catch" or a Scharfman photo of Mickey Mantle.

But I cajoled, poked and prodded my way through the Sports Action category. Making a point here and there, ooohhhing and ahhhhing for affect and "carrying" a few strong peak action images from round to round.

When we got to the finals of the category, we printed out hard copies that we could study and hold in our hands. There is something about holding an actual print --- even one made on a laser printer --- that gives you a better sense of what the photographer was thinking when he made the entry.

In the end what won was a disappointment to the "sports shooter" in me a beautiful slow shutter speed photo of a woman swimming the English Channel by Alan Hawes of the Charleston Post & Courier.

The judging criteria for Sports Action is:
A peak action photograph which captures the competitive spirit and game coverage.

At the time I did not feel that it fit the category and argued that in my opinion the image was more of a Sports Feature or even a Pictorial than Action.

We can only judge images as they are entered and gauge them against its singular competition. The arguments by the others on the panel were compelling and in their own way just --- the image showed an athlete's struggle against nature and the beauty of the moment and with great light.

In the end, I stand by the award and applaud the photographer and the other judges for having the vision to select it the winner in the Sports Action category.

But I struggled with all of the winners in this category for days. I came to the conclusion that my likes and dislikes in sports photography won't change at least over the course of one week in Florida.

For the hardcore, peak action freaks and aficionados, maybe this contest and POY are not for you. Traditional peak action is the measuring stick for contests like the Baseball Hall ofFame and Pro Football contests.

I've said this over and over for years: if you have a problem with the judging of a contest, don't look entirely at the photos and the photographers look at the judging panel as well.

A great example of the divergence in how photos are judged is to look at the difference in the sports winners in NPPA's monthly clip contest and the winners of POY the last 5 or 6 years.

(Then look at the book's index to read who was on the POY jury compare that to who judges the monthly clips.)

What I think the winners in the BOP Sports Action category says to all of us is we have to stretch and grow. We have to look beyond the chalk lines on the playing fields we shoot games on.

In an age where we no longer cover news just in our immediate neighborhood --- the laptop and digital camera have taken even the smallest paper global --- sports photography, at least how it's judged in contests, is being ratcheted up a few notches.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Detroit Free Press

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Detroit Free Press
This is evidenced by the Sports Action second place winner, a wonderfully composed wide-angle photo of two bare foot children playing soccer on a dusty field in Haiti.

Sports Action? Not in the "classic" sense.

But it is a storytelling image that elevates photography to that "show the world" level that we all strive for.

I believe that strong "classic" peak action has a place and it is done extremely well every day in the thousands of publications out there. Every day photographers are handed assignments to cover games, from little league to the pros, and outstanding peak action photos are made and published.

We need to continue to enter our best work in contests and have our work seen by as many people as we can.

We still need to lug that 600mm out to a prep soccer game in the hopes of capturing that frozen moment of a ball smashing into a player's face.

We still need to climb that ladder to hang a remote camera over the ring for that one in a million shot of a KO'd boxer laid out in Don King's crown painted on the canvas.

And we still need to have the reflexes that capture Kobe Bryant leaping over a row of terror-faced fans as he saves a ball from going out of bounds.

Keep shooting.

And remember: keep an open mind.

* * *

A final note on NPPA's Best of Photojournalism judging:

Thanks to contest chairperson Maria Mann (AFP's director of photography) for inviting me to participate. I am sure many felt I was an odd choice to sit in with this panel of judges. Maria had the vision to ask me to help and the fortitude to put up with me.

Also thanks to Clyde Mueller, NPPA president, Joe Elbert, contest committee member and Caroline Foy, BOP contest coordinator. Special thanks to Kenny Irby and the Poynter Institute for playing host to this new and groundbreaking contest.

And special thanks to Brian, Michele, Horacio and Cheryl for sharing their vision and energy. The experience, though I might not agree on everything, will help me grow.

You can view ALL of the entries in The Best of Photojournalism Contest via the Internet at:,

And for a complete list of the winners:

Lastly, check out the cool video by Beth Reynolds of the judges in action:

* * *

Sharing experiences is what makes Sports Shooter so special and this month we have a very personal piece by Peter Read Miller on his decision to have laser surgery on his eyes. We also announce the winners of our annual Sports Shooter Contest and we wrap up the Winter Olympics with articles by Tracy Frankel and Dave Black. Sports Shooter also begins a new column with the debut of "Ask Snappy".

So sit back, adjust the volume on that iPod, and enjoy Sports Shooter v.41.

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