“Congratulations, you are a winner!” (Huh?)

Photo contests are everywhere these days, and for the most part I ignore them.  However, I recently learned that my entry to one contest was deemed a “winner.”  The entire process — from the decision to enter this particular contest through multiple layers of judging — caused me to think about my photography in a different way.  I’ll elaborate below…

First, some background on this particular contest and the image in question.  I am a member of Nikonians, a large and diverse international community of professional and amateur photographers who use Nikon equipment.  A number of Nikonians web forums hold monthly or quarterly themed competitions.  The theme for the May 2014 contest in the Travel Photography forum was “carnival,” selected by the winner of a previous month’s contest.  I decided that some of the images from our trip to Venice during Carnevale in 2012 fit this theme and submitted two shots of individuals in elaborate and traditional Carnevale costumes.  One of these images (below) was selected as a “finalist for the month” (again, by the winner of a previous monthly contest), then selected as the monthly winner by a poll of those visiting the Travel Photography forum, and finally selected by a jury of eight experienced photographers from among more than 100 monthly/quarterly winners of the themed contests and challenges during 2014 as one of the “ten best of Nikonians 2014” images.

Venice Carnevale:  Eye Contact

Venice Carnevale:  Eye Contact

What is it about this image that caused it to be selected, through three rounds of judging, from the literally hundreds of images submitted to the various Nikonian forum contests?  The composition is simple, the pose is classic (thanks to the model, not to me!), and the colors are rich.  However, I think it is the eyes, engaging almost confrontationally with the camera, that make the picture distinctive.  (When I posted the picture to Facebook, a friend commented that it was “unnerving, but in a very cool way.”)  Her eyes reach out to make, almost demand, a connection with the viewer.  A more difficult question is:  how can I make images of my more usual (and inanimate) subjects that also connect powerfully with the viewer?

But then, who are the “viewers” of my images?  I am not a professional photographer and have no desire to be one.  I got back into the photography game five years ago primarily to please myself by taking something more than just snapshots, but I would be lying if I said I did not derive satisfaction when others see and respond to my photos.  Still, I have no desire to play the popularity contest game that is 500px these days or accumulate lots of superficial “likes” on Facebook or Flickr.  In the end, this is the liberating beauty of being an amateur:  I can make the photos I want to make, share them where and when I want to share them, be thankful if some people find value in them.  Being a “winner” in a photo contest is important to me because it demonstrates I’m not just talking to myself through my photography.  That’s enough for now.