The Transparent Jury and the Opaque Prize

henri_gervex_-_a_session_of_the_painting_jury_-_google_art_project

A Session of the Painting Jury
Henri Gerve, 1885 (source)

Over the weekend I tweeted about finding the same name in both the jury and shortlist for the recently announced Aperture Paris Photobook awards shortlist. The artist, writer and curator David Campany was both a selector for the initial shortlist, and the author one of the five books shortlisted for the Photography Catalogue of the Year award. What was most glaring about this for me was the lack of acknowledgment or explanation of this alongside the announcement, and Aperture’s lacklustre response to my Tweets requesting clarification about what safeguards they had in place. Dissatisfied by their response I thought I’d use the opportunity to discuss some of the problematic issues I see as inherent in most photography prizes, both in their structure as organisations, and more abstractly in their role as supposed arbiters of photographic quality. For a photographer to win or be shortlisted for a prize is regarded as a sign of their ability and credibility, and yet the processes and criteria by which these things are determined are seldom on view to those who submit to this judgement, much less the wider audiences who consume the results as exhibitions and books. Nor do we often ask exactly whose interests prizes best serve.

First of all I should say that I really admire Campany’s practice for its diverse approaches and critical nature, which I see as a much more developed version of what I am trying to do in my own work (and while his role on the jury might be the genesis for this conversation it is not really about him or Aperture). A practice structured in this way can be enormously stimulating, but working across several areas which are traditionally seen as self-contained, standalone careers is also an effective way of complicating your life if you are also mindful of your critical and creative independence and of conflicts of interest. I doubt I need to point out the reasons that working as a critic is challenging if you are also a photographer, often reliant on those you are tasked to critique in one role for your advancement in another. For obvious reasons it also never looks particularly good to sit in judgement over your own work, or even to sit in proximity to such judgment. When I first sat down to write about this my mind was set to how an industry aware of these issues could develop mechanisms which would make it possible for someone to judge and at the same time have their book considered for the same prize. The more I thought about it though the more I found this question highlighting the basic problems with prizes and the methods of their judgement. That a jury system is problematic for appraising the worth of art, that the judging processes themselves often byzantine and secretive, and prizes by their nature self-selective.

The simplest method of avoiding such a conflict of interest in a pre-existing jury is an individual withdrawal from the process of judging by the person for whom a conflict of interest has been identified. This, according to Aperture’s eventual response, was their solution. It would be wrong however to think that a temporary withdrawal of a member of the jury resolves the problem in these situations. A pre-existing jury from which one member briefly exempts themselves briefly might feel a lingering sense of loyalty to one of their own, or just as possible depending on the individual dynamics, a sense of antagonism. How can a jury knowingly judge something closely connected to one of their own and treat it in the same way as the work of a normal contributor? The only workable solution at this stage would seem to be full discharge from the process of judging or the complete withdrawal of the work to be judged, but really it shouldn’t come to this stage at all, these problems ought to be screened in the process of recruiting a jury. When I was a child breakfast cereal packets often had competitions on the back, always prefaced with the warning that anyone connected with the competition or related to someone connected with it would be excluded from entry. Simple enough that I understood these rules as an eight year old, and this was for competitions where the stakes were far lower than the average photography prize, so why do we often seem to lack such basic safeguards in photography competitions, where people often sit in judgement over the work of their friends, protégés, and favourites?

These observations in turn raise the issue of how basically inappropriate a jury system can be for the judging of something as subjective and dependent on individual feeling as art. Anyone who has been on a jury or involved in a similar small group decision making process will know the capacity of some individuals to wield disproportionate influence over others. Juries are rarely composed of true equals, and there is always the danger that opinions might be swayed by the more eloquent, vocal or domineering of a group. This not to mention the extent to which a small jury system in an industry like photography often favours the judged who come with developed networks and influence, while working to the disadvantage of new arrivals in the field and those without such cultural capital (is it a coincidence that as I come to know more people in the field I find myself more frequently nominated for things? I think not).

Part of the problem is that a jury system is too attractive to entirely dispose of because it brings certain privileges and associations with it from its judicial origins which we find hard to shed even when this model is put to use in the context of art judging. One is that for the jurors this system offers a certain collective safety and responsibility, that no one person can be held individually responsible for a decision, however blatantly crass, lazy or self-serving. Another, more significant for the purpose of this conversation, is the sense that juries are above reproach or questioning, and that the machinations which lead to their decisions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny. A third is the perception of the jury as an important check on the power of the state, or the context of art perhaps a check on the interests of the powerful organisations who often fund prizes and competitions. The reality of all three of these is troublesome, particularly the third. Rather than acting as a check or balance juries can as easily be a fig leaf for the organisations behind such competitions. It is telling I think that all the major sponsored competitions (The Taylor Wessing prize, the Deutsche Börse prize, The Syngenta Photography Award, Prix Pictet, etc) invariably include a representative or close associate of the sponsoring company on the jury. Not quite an artistic trial by one’s peers.

To me these problems suggest the need for a different model of jurying, of individual judges of whatever number judging in isolation from each other (whether in the same building or on different continents). They might perhaps have some capacity for communication and discourse about the work but would be basically unaware of who their co-jurors are, and a decision would ultimately be made based on an aggregate of opinions of the work put before them. Such a system would also allow for far larger juries than are usually employed. In Ancient Greece the citizen juries of the Dikasteria could be vast, ranging over a thousand people, a safeguard intended to protect against bribery. In the context of photography a large distributed jury also safeguards against jurors with a penchant for promoting their own interests by at least watering down the effects and avoids the tendency that the same predictable names appear on juries again and again (in some respects Prix Pictet’s initial nomination process with it’s representation of every global region seems like a good model for this). Except of course such a mass jury system, while perhaps fairer, would also deglorify the role of the juror as elite industry expert, and prospect of judging a prize remotely would remove the reason that many jurors take part at all, the prospect of a paid trip somewhere nice.

Like an inverted Russian doll each problem in this conversation seems to open up to reveal a bigger one, and in the final instance the biggest of them all is the simple problem of prizes themselves. Photographers seldom stop to question either the byzantine, opaque nature of most photography prizes and competitions, nor do we often ask whether the effect they have on our industry is positive, and if it is, for whom? To tackle the first issue, while photographers submit their works to judging (and often pay for the pleasure) they often have little idea what process of appraisal their works will be submitted to, nor the extent to which judges will have to actually justify their decisions to the artists, audiences or organisers. Despite presenting themselves as arbiters of good photography, prizes are almost never transparent about the processes by which they reach such decisions or the ways that jurors and nominators are selected, processes which ultimately have everything to do with which works are finally selected. Fee charging prizes, of which the Aperture Photobook Prize is one, are also rarely transparent about the purpose of the money they raise, a tendency which is doubly problematic where a prize also raises income beyond entry fees, for example from ticket sales and corporate sponsorship (here again the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize is a prime example). No prize that charges a fee can really claim to represent the best in the field of photography on which it focuses, only the best work that could afford to pay.

Finally what is most rarely asked is what purpose prizes actually serve, and whether their influence on our industry is broadly positive or negative? This is a huge question which really deserves an entire post of it’s own, but to offer a brief answer I think that that prizes are primarily about generating a useful illusion of success in a field where actual success is inherently difficult or even impossible to measure. This sense of success is useful for all involved. For the artist since it offers an easy shortcut to evidencing their achievement without being side-tracked into obscure conversations about creative or social worth. For the organisations which frequently are behind competitions it benefits their own activities to be seen to be aligned with ‘successful’ artists, even if that success is very much of their own making. And of course for the sponsors, who benefit from the public good will that derives from their patronage of the arts, and who are into the bargain able to subtly steer the sense of what art is successful away from art which challenges their activities (and if you don’t believe that happens I recommend reading this).

Over the years I’ve spent enough time blogging into the void to know that just writing about this will make no difference. There are too many vested interests for the industry to adopt alternative models or even enter into a debate about the role and purposes of prizes without major pressure. As with any number of other problems any real response needs to come from below, but the difficulty with competitions is that many photographers still seem them as something essentially to their benefit, and struggle to recognise the ways they work against them. Like playing the lottery, the hope is always there that next week it might be you, so why bite the hand that might one day feed? What I am really asking is that photographers and artists simply approach competitions and prizes with more questions and scepticism. By entering without question you validate the organisation that runs it, and make it easier for them to ignore the problems I’ve outlined above. So in future look carefully, think twice and if in doubt ask these difficult questions of organisers, and of your peers and colleagues who play a vital role in these competitions as judges, juries, and occasional executioners.

(Update: Aperture have since tweeted me that the conflict was mentioned during the announcement of the shortlist, which is 14 minutes into the video here. This is good, but it dosen’t explain why the same issue wasn’t highlighted on their site where one presumes many more people would learn about the shortlist, or deal with any of the points above about the inefficacy of a judge leaving the room for five minutes while their work is debated).

One thought on “The Transparent Jury and the Opaque Prize

  1. Lewis, I share your concerns about competitions though not so much about their opacity as their fundamental value to the photographer. For those with a competitive nature I suppose they can act as a spur to personal development (though how this happens without feedback I’m not sure) but for those with a more collaborative mindset the main lesson from competitions is how to cope with failure. Competitions can be good for the winners and for the organisers, but for the majority of entrants..?
    Another issue I have with competitions is ‘judgement’. I believe the biggest enemy of creativity is judgement (which is not the same thing as forming an opinion). Our society traps us into making judgements all too readily; learning to suspend judgment is one of the most valuable lessons for any artist, but competitions have the opposite effect. The lesson? If you want to be a creative photographer, avoid competitions!

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