I went to the Sony World Photographer of The Year Awards (2014) exhibition in London on May 3rd .
"Stunning!" would be my one word review.
The work on display, as you would imagine from an exhibition with such a title, was simply amazing. In every category, whether it was the open category, people or travel, every single photograph was captivating. If you're in London be sure to get to the exhibition to see some of the most engaging photographs that have been curated in one place.
Common Themes Among Successful Photographs
As well as being photographs that were incredibly engaging, captivating, thought-provoking or sometimes shocking, the most awarded photographs all shared some commonalities:
Eliciting an Emotional Response
Some of the most memorable photographs are the ones that make you think. The photographs that make you say "Oh My God" either from the content inside the frame and / or the short caption written next to the print on the wall, explaining what you are seeing.
Photographs placed 3rd or sometimes 2nd in categories need those captions, not to make up for what is missing, but just to add a little context to exactly what it is you are seeing in that photograph. Photographs of famine, domestic abuse, animal cruelty or acid attack victims: the photographs by themselves are perhaps not clear or obvious at a glance. But when the person or the scene you are looking at is explained it can offer another level of appreciation for the photograph you are viewing, the subject within the frame and the photographer who made the photograph.
For me these photographs are successful because they are far more than snap shots, far more than someone's holiday snaps and far more emotionally deep than I've ever seen even the most decorated of wedding photographers capture on a wedding day.
Successful photographs elicit an emotional response in the viewer. That is the first thing that the photographs at this exhibit share.
Those placing 1st, 2nd and 3rd all have stories behind them. The most successful photographs of course tell their stories all within the frame with the elements included: allowing each viewer to interpret the story their own way. Much, dare I say it, like art.
- A series of photographs depicting the story or domestic abuse in the US.
- A photograph showing drug users, as they are using inside an abandoned building
- Even a cross-section of recently discovered carnivorous plants that have devoured insects.
All of these photographs tell a story of human nature, of relationships, of evolution & change.
Some of these stories are explained in the short captions, again adding further impact and context to exactly what it is you're looking at. Some of the photographs need little, or no explanation.
A successful photograph tells a story.
Visceral. Imperfect. Gritty.
What I would say that stood out for me from my visit, was not so much one piece of work, (although there are a few) but a theme among all of the entries. As a photographer It's a theme that I can relate back to Street photography.
The most awarded photographs and recognised works are not the ones that are the most technically perfect.
In fact, I'd say that those photographs that are seemingly sharper, in focus, well cropped etc are - on average - lower scoring that those that are imperfect.
However, those photographs where the shutter speed wasn't quick enough to produce a perfectly sharp subject, or where the subject had moved into an out of focus area (particularly reportage moments) or where a photographer had limited time in a disaster zone and so made a photograph where the thirds weren't followed or the main subject was in the 'wrong' place: they were the photographs that were the most captivating and moving.
It reminded me of the interview I did with David DuCemin a few weeks back and he said:
"Human emotion will always win out over the technical aspect of a photograph".
David went on to say that as humans we don't resonate with perfection and explained something called the 'too perfect rule' whereby too much sharpness in an image is as bad as blur. Effectively a perfectly clean photograph is fine, but if the moment or the emotion is missing, then what have you got?
The Sony World Photography Awards are not awards for the most noise-free, aberration-free and perfectly composed and beautiful photographs: They're awards for photographers and photographs that were captured because of the moment, the subject and the story and as such the response each photographer evokes in the viewer.
Long story short the technical matters , of course, a good strong photograph makes a picture more pleasing, but don't miss the moment through trying to seek perfection. Just get a shot and do the best to make it pleasing.