Not quite sure how I think about photo competitions in general. After all, someone, whose work you might not know, or even respect, is going to assign a numerical score to what you consider aesthetically pleasing. Take for example one of the judges in the latest round of photo competitions at the Exhibition in Saskatoon who could not get over images mounted on neutral white foam core forming a border around the picture – the judge did not like it. It Seems like a pretty odd thing to get worked up about especially considering the rules which left very little leeway when it comes to presentation – but I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is how I think the Saskatchewan Art Showcase could be so much better for everyone if the groups more accurately represented the quality of the work submitted.
This year my wife, Ileana, entered into the first time amateur group and came away with a third prize. She also entered into other groups and had a few honorable mentions, so that was all well and good. What concerned me was her comment that had she known she would be competing against people who regularly produce work beyond what many professional photographers are capable of she would not have entered the competition. It seems skewed and feels almost as crazy as putting Usain Bolt in with a bunch of 5th graders for the 100m dash – hardly a fair match.
The driver for this inequity is, of course, the term amateur which we somehow equate with a level of knowledge and quality below what we think of when we imagine a professional photographer. Not surprising, according to Merriam-Webster the two definitions for amateur are: Amateur, one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession. She played soccer as an amateur before turning professional OR One lacking in experience and competence in art or science. The people running that company are a bunch of amateurs. In the first case, we associate level of skill and knowledge with the ability to make money from the endeavor. I.e the implication is that one is good enough to make money from it. And, in the second case clearly, there is an implied lack of skill. The problem is that photography is fundamentally different. I agree, there is skill involved and it takes years of constant attention and honing and many other factors to consistently produce high-quality work.
However, and I am going to get some flack for saying this, being a professional photographer is not a real strong indicator of the quality of the art produced. Yes, a professional photographer will, or at least should, have impeccable technical skills, and there will be little to fault in his/her work when it comes to the technical stuff. But, ultimately we are talking about creating art, and a solid memorable photograph is made up of much more than attention to the mechanical aspects. A good shot, like any good art, ideally should leave you speechless and hopefully question your very existence. In fact, if you check out the 100 most powerful shots of all times many of them are candid captures shot by amateurs and professionals alike. My point is that we need to think of a different way to categorize people submitting work for competitions in general and the Saskatchewan Art Showcase specifically.
By making the groups more equal regarding the quality of work we make the process less intimidating for people with lower skills as they will compete on a more equal footing. At the same time by putting high-quality work into a separate category, we would also make it better for stronger photographers as those people would face stiffer competition from their peers and should ideally, therefore, produce more powerful work. Personally, I would much rather place lower in a harder competition than score first in a category where I did not have to do my best – the Usain Bolt principle. So what might this look like? How would we go about grouping people into something more fair?