Judging from the Hot Seat

Kissing Punks ©John Andrew Hughes

The reason for this articles title is fairly simple. Judging is not for everyone and sometimes as a club, National or International judge, in open session, it can feel as if those eyes behind you are burning into the back of your neck. As a judge your opinion is also judged in the minds of the participant listeners.

What is the literal meaning of the word Judge or act of judging? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, judge, judging and judged is to ‘form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises’. ‘To determine or pronounce after inquiry and deliberation, to form an estimate or evaluation of or opinion about’. This of course includes positive and negative conclusions or opinions.

While we are on the subject of judging, we should also look at the words Analyze and Analysis. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, these words or actions mean to ‘Study or determine the nature and relationship of the parts or subject to scientific or grammatical analysis’.

Lets take it down to the basics. We can use probably the most famous of paintings as an example. The ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo DaVinci. We may ask ourselves, when standing in front of this masterpiece, what am I looking at? What do I feel? Do I feel anything? Am I impressed by the quality of the work? Am I pleased by the colors and strokes of the paint? Is the composition pleasing to my eyes? You can see a pattern forming. Nearly every question above has the word ‘I’ in it. This is because the opinion you share with yourself or others should be your opinion, analysis or judgment and yours alone. As judges we should and must stand alone in our opinion even if this means on occasion that the burning feeling on our necks becomes too hot to handle. This is what makes judging necessarily subjective.

Back to Mona Lisa. The reason for using this painting as an example is that it is so recognizable and so famous that most of us can visualize the painting in our minds. It is an image that is, as stated, instantly recognized and pre-determined as ‘famous’. Because of this our thoughts or comments on this masterpiece are most probably tainted. Are we supposed to like it? Could, we be criticized by other art aficionados for not liking it? It would take a strong judge to stand in front of Mona Lisa and make a really true assessment by blocking out influences from history. After all, this is a painting that songs have been written about. The whole point here is that it is extremely hard to comment on a well-known piece when so many comments have come before.

As a photography judge we are not put under such pressure as commenting on Leonardo DaVinci’s great lady. The images placed before us are carefully kept from the judges prior to competition and if an image is recognized or there is a conflict of interest, that particular judge removes themselves from the current round of judging. The pressure is also removed by the use of multiple judges usually numbering around five in total, with three judging at any one point in the process.

How do we judge? Anyone can say ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’. Neither of those comments would be helpful to the image-maker. So, how do we do an image justice when commenting on a fellow photographers hard work? A judge should consider himself or herself a mentor. The folks sitting behind you are eagerly awaiting your comments and scores. If we consider each of our comments as a very short lesson, then the comments will give the maker something to take away and consider for future image making. Can a comment be negative in nature? Yes. This is where we must carefully choose our words as human nature does not allow for direct criticism, especially when the image maker has, in their opinion, done their best and entered a competition with at least some confidence of scoring well.

Mentoring in short bursts is something that needs to be practiced as an ongoing exercise. Those current or would be judges should make an effort to constantly look at photographs and paintings of the great masters and at all other levels. Not just looking, but seeing. Seeing is a conscious effort where we ask ourselves those questions in our head about the aesthetics of an image. Without such practice, it would be easy to resort to ‘canned’ comments about rules, such as the ‘Rule-of-Thirds’. What’s wrong with that? You may ask. Well, also ask yourself this. How many fantastic images have been placed before you that did not comply with any compositional rule or other rule? This would be akin to saying that two particular colors do not go well together, then having a designer place them together in such a way as they do indeed ‘work’. Your opinion though, prevails. 

Don’t be afraid. It seems in most instances the judges opinions are taken in good faith, although an exhibitor may be lightly hurt for an instance, most take away the comments for what they are, someone else’s opinion. Because there is no formula and a machine for judging images has not been invented yet! We will have to rely on others good faith to help us improve our photography in the best way we know how, by entering competitions.

So, you’ve volunteered to be a judge or you are thinking of taking a step in that direction. Firstly, clubs, National and International exhibitions are usually short of judges and will welcome others to the fray with open wide arms. If you are someone who has not tried judging, why not? And a quick note to those of you who do not judge, but whose burning stares at times make the judges chair the ‘Hot’ seat. Don’t just sit there judging the judge, they are doing their best and after all, it’s only their opinion.

As a footnote, this author has an opinion about Mona Lisa. For him it is not just the quality of the painting itself, but about the subject herself, as she begs more questions than answers. Maybe Leonardo knew this when he chose her. Who knows? Maybe Leonardo placed some of his friends in the ‘Hot’ seat to comment on his work for feedback after he had brushed the final stroke on a masterpiece.

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