Missouri Grad Students Learn From CPOY Mock Judging

By Ryan Fagan, Shana Lynch and Ali Ryan

COLUMBIA, MO. — Pictures are pretty. They're emotional, intense and sometimes a bit amusing. But mostly, they're pretty. At least, that's what we thought.

We are graduate students in the University of Missouri's School of Journalism who are taking a class in visual communication. We are writers and advertisers. We appreciate pictures, but we are certainly not photographers. Nor are we qualified to critique one of the premier competitions in the country, the College Photographer of the Year contest.

Founded in 1945, the event honors the best student photojournalists in the country. The contest is hosted by Missouri and Kappa Alpha Mu, an honorary photojournalism society, and more than 250 students from more than 50 universities compete each year. (Note: CPOY is also sponsored by the National Press Photographers Foundation. The NPPF Booster Club provides the $1,000 Col. William Lookadoo award and the $500 Milton Freier award.) CPOY selects a panel of four judges, award-winning professionals who donate their time and knowledge to help recognize up-and-coming student photographers, and recognizes outstanding work of students currently working toward a degree. It's the real-deal Holyfield.

Yet, there we were.

This semester has taught us that pictures are more than just pretty, they're also meticulously composed, technically involved and masterfully complete. We are learning how terms such as Rule of Thirds, color saturation and story flow apply to the photographic process. We can even use them in a conversation so we sound smart. In theory, at least.

Now these three non-photography journalism grad students were going to put our book-learning to the test. As the graduate component of the class, we were mock judging the CPOY contest. We were excited, we were a bit intimidated. Our big fear was that all of our finalists would be cut by the real judges in the first round. That would be embarrassing. Not too surprising, but embarrassing.

Tucker Forum was set up to look like the bridge of some spacecraft in a Star Trek movie. Four chairs sat center stage, surrounded by computers and mechanisms designed to make the judging process run efficiently. But even in the empty room and laid-back atmosphere, we felt a bit out of place.

And we, of course, made amateur moves. We judged the spot news category, which had a total of 167 photographs. After round one, we still had 97. We were often drawn to images that seemed impressive at first ­ grand fires erupting from buildings, violent scenes -­ and had a difficult time understanding that these images were often clichéd.

But after our nervousness wore off and the soothing rhythm of the process took over, we got the hang of it. We narrowed the large number to 63, then narrowed further as we discussed technical issues, the definition of spot news, the level of difficulty the photographer went through to get the shot. We argued over whether the important content of looters chased by police overcame a black-and-white image with poor contrast. We debated whether a humorous photograph of a cow at someone's front door was worthy of an award simply because it made us laugh each time we saw it. We discussed which of the myriad fire images was worth bringing to the final round after realizing how many were clichéd images.

Despite our reluctance to disqualify images, our final round showed a series of strong photographs. Without needing to discuss it whatsoever, we gave first place to a beautiful image of an illegal immigrant caught by the spotlight of border patrol. We all recognized the superb black-and-white image portraying the intimacy of fear and defeat in the man's expression and body posture. Second place went to a grisly and terrifying image of a murdered man surrounded by onlookers in Port au Prince.

Our third-place winner involved a bit more debate; we chose an image of firefighters spraying a house to protect it from impending fire while a group of children looked out from the house's front window. We agreed that the children's faces peering out made this a wonderful image, but that at first glance, most of us hadn't seen the children. Was it still worthy of a placing? After some debate, we thought so.

We gave more honorable mentions than most professional judges might. We awarded an image of a field sobriety test that we were drawn to for its beautiful light, a photograph of a street gang, a young man wading his bicycle through a monsoon, and a group of protestors fighting with police. We also awarded an image of a man with a machete guarding a gate in Port au Prince where the photograph's subject had been swinging a machete at the photographer. For us, it seems, the danger of taking the image increased the quality of the image.

After we judged the images, we looked forward to the real judging that would take place the next day. What had we missed that professionals would see? Would any of our images place?

The following day, nothing looked different in the room. Same science-fiction lighting. Same voting buzzers. Same fiddly headsets that recorded every word the judges spoke. But the feel of the room had changed. This wasn't just an exercise. This time, three of the photographs would garner CPOY medal recognition. And this time, there was nothing we could do to sway the outcome. We sat quietly in the back row as photography professionals Teri Boyd, Lynn Johnson, Fred Sweets and Chris Wilkins judged the images we'd seen a mere 24-hours before.

The professionals efficiently whipped through round one and knocked out 135 images, including three of our honorable mentions: the bicycle monsoon, the street gang, and the machete-wielding Port-au-Prince guard. But they kept the cow photograph -- laughing every time it appeared, even though, as one of the judges put it, "it'll never make the final cut" -- and five of the images that had made it to our prize round.

Our egos took a blow in round two as our second-place finisher, the startling image of a murdered man in Port au Prince, was eliminated. Groan. The gorgeous sobriety test shot also went out, but the loss of one of our honorable mentions didn't sting nearly as much as the loss of a placer.

But we still had three contenders, the immigrant, the protest, and the near-burning house with the children in the window, as the judges began the final round. We sat up a little straighter and listened intently as the interesting part, and the hard part, began. "The difficult part of judging is when you've gotten down to several really good images," says Boyd, the visual project director for the Comer Foundation. "They might be on the same level, but for different reasons, and this is where you have to bring in other factors about the images to see which one will rise above the other."

As the judges began to talk, we recognized much of what they were saying because we'd been exploring the same ideas in our discussions the day before. They too wondered if the children in the window of the endangered house were too subtle. They sparred over whether at least one spot news winner should be an active shot. They noticed the lack of contrast, of pop, in the photo of looters fleeing a warehouse. They wavered, as we had, between putting the shot of the protesters in third place (which they eventually did) or selecting the house fire.

Just as it had with us, the photograph of the illegal immigrant went into the first place spot and stayed there. No discussion. No objection. The image was so personal, so visceral, says Johnson, freelance photojournalist and Sports Illustrated staff photographer, that the connection was immediate. "When you can feel some common ground with the person in the image, a lot of other parameters just drop away," she says. "It lets you in."

But the judges' second-place selection, a complex, layered shot of a motorbike accident scene, was one we'd outed early in the second round. Most of us barely remembered seeing it. Officers held up a white sheet in the background to block a body from view. Friends of the rider killed sat on a guardrail at roadside. A motorbike and an ambulance were prominent at the front of the frame. Johnson was the image's biggest supporter, and, she says, articulating what it was she saw in the shot became a personal and professional challenge. "I immediately connected to that photo," she says. "I think it was because it felt different. It was not a classic, expected image." And, she says, it wasn't a typical accident shot. "It had so many layers," she says. "It required something of the viewer. There was nothing in it to romance you. It was a much more subtle image." Wilkins, a picture editor at the Dallas Morning News, seconds the subtlety. "I later met the photographer and he was amazed it won anything," he says. "That's the beauty of photography, a single picture can say many different things to different people."

Still, we aren't chiding ourselves too roughly. Three of our images did make the final round, and our first-place selection was dead on. Does this mean the four of us should sack our writing, editing and advertising interests to pursue our obvious talent as photography contest judges? Well -- maybe not just yet. "I would imagine that your reasons for your choices were different than ours, even though the outcome was the same," Boyd says. "In a contest like this, the better images really do stand out above others, and that may be an explanation as to why our results were so similar."

And after all, the judges say, the process is inherently subjective. "After 20 years in the business, I still am amazed at the lack of consistency in contests," says Wilkins. "There have been many Pulitzer winners that didn't even place in POY, and also World Press grand prize winners that came up empty in POY." It's important to remember, Johnson says, that the results do hinge on the judges. "It's just one person, or two people, or three," she says. "It's not a voice on high. Even though I have 25 to 30 years of experience, it's still my perspective. It's my standard."

Maybe the most important thing we take from the experience is the same thing we'll take from the visual communication class -- the ability to talk intelligently about photographs. "The process of talking about it is valuable," Johnson says. "It really helps you, as a visual professional, become clear about what you think a quality image is -- what moves me. What inspires me."

Well, we did figure out what inspired us. But if the CPOY judges need any help next fall, they know where to find us.

(Editor's note: College Photographer of the Year Rick Gershon, from the University of North Texas, is the cover story of the January issue of News Photographer magazine.)