© Stephen Mayes
Stephen Mayes is managing director of VII Photo Agency and Co-Secretary to the International Jury at World Press Photo Foundation. He has argued that as photojournalists adjust to a changing marketplace, photojournalism competitions need to expand the kind of work they honor. As the annual awards season approached, PDN contacted Mayes for his thoughts on how news photo competitions should evolve.
PDN: Are the major photojournalism contests still relevant?
Stephen Mayes: I think as it stands, they are still reflecting the old publishing model. I know some, including World Press Photo, are looking hard at themselves and how to move forward.
PDN: You’ve said that the competitions reflect media as photojournalists wish it were, rather than how it is. What do you mean by that?
S.M.: Structurally, they’re all a little bit backwards looking. For instance, they have a category called Daily Life. I don’t know any newspapers that have Daily Life [sections]. But there’s a lot of lifestyle [in newspapers], and there has been for years. There’s nothing that reflects the concept of lifestyle in any of these competitions.
PDN: But is lifestyle serious journalism? Can you make an argument why lifestyle should be part of these competitions?
S.M.: If you want to reflect the world press, you need to embrace [what’s in the press]. All the papers I read have sections called Real Estate and Business. I’m not suggesting these be categories of competitions, but they need to be reflected. Otherwise, call the competition something else.
There’s a tendency [among photojournalists] to be centered on the serious and heavy and the weighty to the exclusion of everything else. Wrapped up in that is a mindset that if something is domestic, or about home life, it can’t be serious. I look around and see serious issues, such as alcoholism, but I don’t see those issues addressed by photojournalists.
What I notice is that when people take their blinkers off and get beyond what Time magazine considers a story—as soon as they go on their Facebook page, and say “Look at this amazing thing I saw”—it broadens the perspective of what’s significant and of interest, you get much richer subject matter, and you engage a wider audience. Very serious material is excluded because it doesn’t fit the conventional categories—categories defined by competitions, or categories that journalists impose upon themselves
PDN: You’ve also said that photojournalism has become more romantic than functional. What do you mean?
S.M.: I was referring to Merriam Webster’s definition of romantic: “Marked by emotional appeal to what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized.” Rather than looking at oneself, and at one’s own experience, what photojournalism has become is the process of looking at others in a way that is intrinsically remote and idealized. Representations of war, for instance, fall into standardized forms. There are certain [visual] codes that recur. What I tend to find is that so much journalism we see is about affirming what we already know, instead of challenging us to broaden our horizons.
PDN: How do contests perpetuate that?
S.M.: There’s a tendency to see something which we recognize, and reward it because it’s familiar. This extends to competition juries. And the process of photojournalism is so often encoding what we already know. So the process of looking at a picture has become, “Oh yeah, I understand that” rather than, “Oh really? What’s this about?”
PDN: How do you get contest juries to appreciate and reward the unfamiliar?
S.M.: World Press Photo has been putting a lot of effort into it by introducing juries of very different perspectives, including jurors such as [photographers] Oliver Chanarin, Peter Bialobrzeski, and [curator] Charlotte Cotton in the past few years.
PDN: Is it working?
S.M.: It’s hard to pin down. But in terms of World Press Photo, one of the winners in portraits was images of plastic models re-enacting famous photographs from history.
PDN: That drew a lot of outrage, didn’t it?
S.M.: Yes. I’m not commenting on whether the jury was right or wrong, but that [winner] was an interesting choice that broke expectations of what World Press Photo represents.
The other challenge, which is a little more difficult, is how to encourage [photographers] with different points of view to submit to the competition. The problem with having a strong brand is that people look at previous winners, and think that’s the kind of picture that’s going to win and then submit those types of photos. Yet there are many other kinds of photographers tackling serious issues.
PDN: How can competitions entice them to enter?
S.M.: They can [contact] photographers. They can also approach editors and ask, “What have you seen that surprises you?’” That’s how Roger Ballen’s work got into the World Press Photo competition. Magazines he has worked for entered on his behalf.
PDN: What can photographers do to get beyond the conventions they impose on themselves?
S.M.: Photographers should ask, “What do I find interesting?” rather than “What do I think other people will find interesting?” I think a lot of us would be surprised that those same things would be of interest to a lot of people.
PDN: But that’s easier said than done, so few photojournalists beat their own path. Most are followers.
S.M.: One of the key things I learned while working in stock photography was that as we encouraged photographers to shoot more intimately—by asking them what kinds of activities and behaviors interested them, and what kinds of people—the more [stock photo buyers] reacted. That applies to journalism. So rather than think “I ought to go to India and photograph this worthy subject,” think, “What would I want to read about? What would I want to share about with friends?” It’s not the latest statistics about malaria, but much more personal stuff, through which one can get back to weighty subjects. I’m not saying we should turn away from weighty things, I’m saying we should find some more in-tune way of addressing these subjects.
PDN: What examples illustrate your point?
S.M.: One is Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber’s “Trapped” project on mental health in the North American penal system. It was born of strong personal interest, which motivated them to find other ways [besides magazines] of funding it. They found bits of money all over the place. It was also serving a purpose, which wasn’t to get the most views, but to try to change things. One of their delights is in finding a really significant audience among prison administrators. One of their biggest sources of revenue is the penal system they’re criticizing.
Another example is Simon Roberts who published We English (Boot, 2009). He toured England in a camper van. It became an interactive project with his subjects. For his Election Project, covering British elections last spring, he combines his images with images submitted by the general public. The best ones are filtered out and brought to the top. It’s mediated, but Simon Roberts forms the foundation for it.
PDN: Are contests doing enough to encourage those types of projects?
S.M.: There’s not that much scope at the moment for multimedia projects in photographic competitions, because one has to ask, Are we judging the photography, or the way it’s used and presented? We have to grapple with that. Somehow [competitions] have to find a way to engage with photography in a wider context, and different formats. Maybe it means that the role of conventional competitions is gone, and something has to replace them. Or maybe the competitions have to adapt. I don’t know the answer.