By Tom Burton
Rule changes for the Military Photographer of the Year contest are requiring photographers to win their service branch top honors before being considered for the top overall prize.
Previously, the top-level competition allowed military photographers to enter directly even if their portfolios had not won at the base, command or service levels. Now, entries have to place in the top three at the lower levels to move on.
The top level of the competition is judged by photojournalism professionals outside the military. In the most recent years, most of the judges came from high-profile media companies in the Washington, DC area. Lower level competitions are judged by military communications officials.
The contest, known in the military as MILPHOG, has had a cooperative relationship to the National Press Photographers Association for decades. In addition to offering help in judging and organizing the contests, the MILPHOG winners have been awarded alongside the winners of Pictures of the Year and the White House News Photographers Association.
The rules changes came because the contest had inconsistent procedures between the military branches and the logistics of running the contest had become too large, said Karen Nowowieski, Chief of Public Affairs for Defense Media Activity (DMA). It was also a concern that someone who had not placed in lower competitions could enter and win MILPHOG.
It was a “perception” that the entire media awards program was broken, she said, including awards programs for writers, videographers and other communications professionals. The DMA hosted meetings earlier in 2016 with representatives from the branches to update the rules. The DMA did not vote in the meetings.
Photojournalists with both military and civilian experience have been questioning if military judges, especially at the base level, have the background to select winners based on storytelling and photography standards.
“Our public affairs officers are more than qualified to judge these competitions at the base level,” Nowowieski said.
Ken Hackman has his concerns. Retired after 35 years as a civilian photographer for the Air Force, he ran the MILPHOG competition from 1988 to 1995. His peers refer to him as the godfather of Air Force photojournalism.
“That bothers me a lot,” he said about the base-level judging. “The people doing it are not communicators.”
If high-level work is not awarded at the lower level and taken out of consideration for the top award, he said the quality of the final winning entries could drop. Part of the mission of the contest, he said, was to show civilian photo editors that the military photographers were working at the highest levels and that their photos should be considered for publication.
There will also be a stronger enforcement of an existing rule requiring all entered photos to have a military connection. For the last few years, Nowowieski said there were a growing number of winning entries that did not connect to the military. For instance, in the 2016 winning portfolio by Staff Sgt. Kenneth Holston there were news photos from riots in Baltimore taken on his day off.
“Their mission is to be a military photographer, a military communicator,” Nowowieski said.
Chip Maury was twice MILPHOG during his Navy career. He was later Director of Photography at the Providence Journal and the Indianapolis Star and has been a coach at several photojournalism programs for both civilian and military photographers. He feels the rule changes are about the military wanting to manage the messaging of the images rather than promoting the craft of the photographers.
“You manage things, not people,” Maury said. “How are you going to manage an artist?”
Nowowieski said the DMA is focused on promoting the talents of the photographers and that the conversations about the winners and the resulting education is what drives the competition. The judging will continue to be livestreamed this year, allowing photographers to listen to the judging comments.
She also said that Ray B. Shepherd, Director of DMA, supports the competitions to “celebrate the passion that exists throughout the DOD.”
Both Hackman and Maury said while they had serious concerns about the rules changes, the final results will the winners this year. If the quality remains high, the military photographers will continue to be recognized as competitive with their civilian peers.