Picture, picture of the year, you’ve won

“Alright everyone, saddle up!”

The judges have returned from their coffee break. Chairs scrape, voices fall from chatter to murmurs to silence. The lights go off, the projector turns on, the cycle begins again.

In an upstairs room of the Reynolds Journalism Institute four photography giants sit in a row to judge the ‘Feature’ division of the 70th annual Picture of the Year International competition.

Emilio Morenatti, the Associated Press’ chief photographer in Spain and Portugal, Judy Walgren, Director of Photography at the San Fransisco Chronicle, Bill Luster, formerly of The Courier – Journal and Walt Stricklin, former Director of Photography at The Birmingham News sit in wheeled chairs in the front of the room. Behind them is a skinny table supporting 4 cups of coffee, each cup directly behind one of the chairs. The cups are venti-sized at least. No one here is joking around.

Since 1944 the competition has grown from 50 submissions to “tens of thousands,” according to the POYi website. Today the judges went through roughly 600 photos from the time I walked in (around noon) until they left this evening (trust me, I was long gone by then). Yes, they need that coffee.

More fascinating than the caffeine, though, was the actual judging process. Here’s what went down:

  • A picture flashed onto the screen.
  • There was a series of electronic clicking noises, presumably from hand-held devices operated by the judges. This would take anywhere from 3 to 30 seconds, depending on the image. Some decisions were easy, others seemed more difficult.
  • According to who clicked which button, a (creepy) computerized voice uttered either a loud “IN” or an “OUT.”
  • The next image appeared.

Things progressed pretty steadily during the 20 minutes I sat in the back of the room. The stream of images was controlled by two guys sitting at enormous desktops behind the coffee table behind the judges. Occasionally they’d say “hold on one moment” because they had to switch reels or something. Besides that and the constant “IN”s and “OUT”s of our electronic overlord, the room was silent.

What really threw me was the judging process (or, to my untrained eyes, lack thereof). The “OUT”s were announced after 20 seconds at most. “IN”s were rarer and usually happened after a longer pause. I jerked my head up at every “IN,” scrambling to write down what might make the photo “IN”-worthy before it disappeared. I’m sure I got everything wrong.

I feel I shouldn’t describe the “IN”s at present, seeing as the ‘Feature’ winner won’t be announced until the judging is complete. Instead, here is last year’s winner from the same category.

The judging was an interesting experience, to say the least. Though now more than ever I’m sure I’ll never have the credentials to be a photographer, I will always admire the artistry of those who do.

(Side note: In case you were wondering the title of this post is a reference to the song “Human of the Year” by Regina Spektor. If you already knew that we should be friends.)

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Picture, picture of the year, you’ve won

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