What is self-portraiture? Judging a genre.

In Blog, Competition, Photography, Words by Ben

Photography competition judge

Not even a self-portrait!

I recently had the honour to judge a photography competition held by thePrintSpace, the best printing company in London. The theme was ‘Self-Portraits’. Having lost more photography competitions than I’ve won, it was interesting to be on the other side of the table. I felt a responsibility to look as objectively as I could at each entry, weighing its merits and shortcomings against the others. As with many things, you start to notice patterns, emerging the other side of the experience with a better understanding of photography, and photographers, than when you began. It is the lessons that I learned that I’d like to share with you now.

Let’s look first at the process. The photograps, 275 of them, were online. I looked at each individually on my iPad for an average of twenty seconds. Those photographs that didn’t fit the theme were passed over, regardless of how good they were. Some were instantly striking, while others required a second look. I was looking for competence in the four areas of Holistic Photography;

1. Idea – is it original and engaging?
2. Light – well lit and well captured?
3. Composition – does it support the idea?
4. Timing – was the moment and shutter-speed well chosen?

In addition, I passed over photos that had avoidable distractions, but allowed more leniency for the unposed moment. I tried to differentiate between photos that were just about a technique, and photographs that used a technique to create the meaning. I took self-portraiture as being photographs that gave some insight into a person’s character beyond what they looked like objectively. Almost all of the photos passed a baseline of photographic competence. Then, the clarity and originality of the idea was paramount. The camera did not matter.

What about the entrants? I started photography seriously as a teenager, so I think at least part of the reason for doing so was a preference for being behind the camera instead of in front of it. Now, as an impromptu model for my portraiture-practicing clients, I’m photographed all the time. Most photographers have also taken pictures of themselves to experiment with lighting arrangements. But I think a photo taken to practice new techniques may miss being a portrait; my test shots of my assistant, pretty as she may be, don’t say as much about her character as those photographs made when she is the sole subject.

Some of the best photographers have been private introverts, so turning the lens on oneself with the aim of making a portrait can be an enlightening challenge. A camera can shine light into shadows, revealing hidden secrets; and not just with the flash. To what extent can we photograph our true self, exposing vulnerabilities? It is safer to wear masks and shrouds. The old saying that the camera doesn’t lie was slain by Photoshop; but it still tells a truth unlike our own. I therefore have respect for everyone who took on this difficult genre. Winning a prize is based on someone’s subjective experience, and I think creating a self-portrait is rewarding, regardless of other people’s opinions.

It was also interesting to see that some photographers had chosen to think about what “self’ meant to them. Instead of capturing an objective record of how their face or body looked on that day, they photographed things that made them who they are; treasured objects from their lives, or family members. Others used props to help tell their story. What is the self? Is what you look like who you are? If you’ve not tried photographing your self yet, it’s definitely worth giving it a try. You might be surprised by what you come up with!

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