Written by Ryan Christopher Jones
(DFA guest judge & photographer)
It always stings when a judge doesn’t select one of my photos in a contest, so I very much understand the feeling that I assume many of you are feeling now.
It’s obvious, but we all need to keep in mind that aesthetic taste is subjective. My personal taste for photos falls on the side of quiet, colorful, contemplative and moody, so my eyes read those types of photos quicker than loud and busy ones. I’m more likely to award a photo that has subtle tension than obvious humor (look at Matt Stuart’s great use of humor). I’m more likely to award a photo that asks a question that one that gives an answer (meaning non-literal vs literal). The judges looked at 4,687 pictures and I selected 113 to the final round, which means I had to let a whole lot of good photos go. But that’s part of the difficult editing process. In the next rounds of DFA I hope a photo series category is added; that can help photographers learn how to cull their work better and make tough choices on what to keep and what to cut. The better editor you become, the more you can use an awards loss as a real learning tool to become a more thoughtful photographer.
When submitting your work to contests, be overly critical of your photos. Ask yourself “does this photo make me feel something? What does it make me feel? How is this different from work that I’ve seen before? What makes this photo stand out?” Those are good questions to ask yourself throughout the entire creative process as well, as you shoot, edit and deliver your photos. You won’t always get it (I rarely do!) but we should all strive to create pictures that make someone feel something. There were many great pictures of happy kids that I didn’t choose because there’s simply so many great pictures of happy kids; I’m looking for something that’s exceptional and out of the ordinary.
Families exist beyond the nuclear unit, and not all families are comprised of two parents with kids under ten. In the next rounds of DFA I want to see more grandparents, aunts and uncles, multigenerationalism, gay parents, teenagers and older kids, single mothers or fathers, adoption stories and family reunions. My sister and I are unmarried adults in our thirties with no kids, so during the holidays at home with our parents, our nuclear unit has been exactly the same for over three decades. It’s an increasingly more unconventional arrangement but it’s still very much a family. I understand that most of the submitted photos were taken on private commission for predominantly growing families, but as image makers, I challenge you to seek out the more interesting complexities that exist within the definition of what a family is.
Step back and give your photos room to breathe. Show me the action but show me how the action lives in the real world. 90% of all the photos that I saw were photographed between 3-7 feet away from a subject with a 28-35mm lens. Many photos were too tightly cropped and neatly contained. Nearly 100% of the birth photos were shot that way (or with an 85 that filled the entire frame in a similar way). I get it though: it’s a safe pocket that many of us feel comfortable in once we’ve established the trust of a family. But too many photos shot from that distance makes everything feel, at best, homogenous; at worst, uninspired.
As an exercise, shoot a scene how you normally would (3-7 feet away) and then walk as far back as the room will allow, then shoot it again. If you’re outdoors, walk back far enough to make you feel uncomfortable. It will feel weird to walk away from the action, but it will force you to make a kind of picture that you likely would not make otherwise. When you’re in too tight with wide angle lenses you will often miss a lot of the surrounding context that could make for a more interesting photo. One of the best modern photographers to do this is Chilean photojournalist, Tomás Munita (www.tomasmunita.com). Look at his work and see how he often pulls back from a scene to give it more environmental meaning.
The best portraits tell me a secret about the person being photographed. Their gaze, hands, body language, environment, and eyes all give me hints to who this person is and what they’re about; it’s definitely not all about graphics and composition. Good portraits are *human* and not just a *cool* photo. Don’t be afraid to shoot simple portraits. Don’t be afraid to be confrontational. Don’t get sucked into the trap of making hyper-stylized portraits that value style over substance. It’s okay if someone looks into the camera; it’s up to you to make it not-cheesy.
Think of portraits as a way to introduce a character to the story. Give that person some face time, and especially, show that person’s humanity. A silhouette is almost never a good portrait because the silhouette doesn’t introduce a character, it introduces a placeholder for a character. In a silhouette, the second you remove the texture of someone’s skin, the color of their hair, the feel and look of clothes they choose to wear, they’re no longer a person: they’re a shape.
If you need portrait inspiration, study these photographers: Bryan Schutmaat, Sally Mann, Gordon Parks, Gregory Miller, Rineke Dijkstra, Gregory Crewdson, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Kholood Eid, Matt Eich, Larry Sultan, Dawoud Bey, Diane Arbus, Marry Ellen Mark, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, Jonah Markowitz. These photographers know how to make evocative, human portraits that really get to the core of who their subjects are.
The birth category was the most difficult to judge because I recognize that these photos are invaluable and precious to all those families involved. I can almost hear possibly-offended families say “that photo didn’t win?! It was amazing! They don’t know what they’re talking about!” But as a judge for a photography contest, I need to look beyond that subjective value and see how the event of a birth intersects with the art of photography in unexpectedly beautiful and visual ways. In a collection of almost five hundred photos in this category, there were many, many good photos that didn’t get chosen. But I’m not looking for good – I’m looking for compelling photos that make me feel something. And, again: step back and show me more space! Action is obviously important, but where that action happens can say a lot about the people too. Many of these were home births, where the decision to stay home was — I imagine — very intentional. If a family chooses to give birth at home, respect their decision and show the environment that is clearly special to them. I didn’t see a single home birth photo that showed me the expanse of the room where it happened. Literally, not a single photo in 482.
Generally speaking, I saw too many photos that were shot against a flat wall as the background. Instead, find where two walls meet and use those natural lines to create more dimension in your photos. Flat walls make flat photos. We live in a three-dimensional world, and our photos should reflect that visual depth. Look at the work of Meredith Kohut and Daniel Berehulak and see how they make sense of a three-dimensional space.
Stay away from gratuitous negative space. Use it if it adds meaningful visual weight to a photo, but not if it’s useless information. Often times it just slows down the “read” of a photo and the photo would be better if just photographed simply and straight.
If you’re going to use a reflection, make it smart. Ask yourself, “does a reflection make this picture better, or do I now just have two of the same uninteresting thing?”
I was shocked by how few full-family portraits I saw in the portrait category. I almost saw exclusively portraits of children. Show me everyone! Look at the work of Tierney Gearon, Carrie May Weems, Sally Mann, Gordon Parks, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Matt Eich. They all do nuanced family work in the documentary tradition that challenge an audience to think about families in more complex ways.
There weren’t many, but there were a few photos that felt exploitative for a number of reasons. In all cases and all genres, please, retain the respect and dignity of the people you are photographing, especially if you’re traveling to a new place. Working as a photographer is a privilege and most of the time it is used for good, but when it isn’t, it’s harmful to all parties involved. It breaks the intimate trust that exists between a photographer and the people he or she is photographing.
The best photos are questions, not answers. My two judge’s choices embodied the mystery that I love about photography. The portrait is of young child resting hilariously and awkwardly on a couch. The amazing body language of the photo drew me in the second I saw it – he appears that he’s melting into his environment, and that he’s probably okay with it. The toy in his right hand, the toy on the ground, the leg shadows on the couch, and the lush, soft tones are all beautiful details that introduce him as a character that I want to know more about. Is he tired? Content? Ambivalent? So much excitement that it’s rendered him immobile? It’s shot at an angle that has a wonderful sense of dimension to it, and it combines both indoor and an outdoor settings. It has tension and just enough confrontation that makes it a truly unique photo. It’s a curious portrait of contained chaos that passes the “character” test.
My other choice was the muted yet colorful photo of (what i assume to be) a boy and his mother. It’s graphic and moody, and has a Gregory Crewdson sense of tension to it; so much tension it begins to craft its own narrative. It forces a viewer to speculate on the possibly distant relationship between the two. It takes some guts to enter a photo like this in a family category because it’s quite clearly not a cheery photo, and one that challenges the idea of a happy family. It’s two, obscured Hitchcockian shadows who are faced away from each other, both surrounded by their own individual spheres of color, as if they are swimming on their own planets. There’s a saying in the newspaper world that a photographer “can take one silhouette a year: make it count.” With the tension, mood and narrative, this silhouette is unlike any one I’ve seen, so the photographer clearly made it count.