Terrible Twos

August 10, 2010 

It’s hard to believe I’ve been blathering away on this blog for two years already. In that time, my desk has amassed an assortment of mementos, press passes and inkjet prints of goofy outtakes; I’ve gotten a taste of how the daily grind of this job distorts your perception of time; and, apparently, I’ve gotten worse at making pictures.

As an intern at the Herald during summer 2007, I didn’t win any photo contests. In my first year on staff in 2008, I snagged my first National Press Photographer Association’s monthly regional clip win — second in August’s multiple photo category — for my work at the rodeo.

The following month, I won first in the same category for my Wings Over Washington shots.

In December, my right-place-at-the-wrong-time shot of Washington State Patrol Sgt. Zach Elmore helping Pete Rieke out of his car won second in both NPPA’s contest and the one at Sports Shooter before earning me honorable mention in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competition and third in the Washington/Oregon AP Photo Contest.

I was far more prolific in the NPPA contest in 2009, winning five first places, four seconds and three thirds. Even more exciting was earning my first national clip wins, which are selected from the top photos in the NPPA’s 11 regional contests.

This shot of Mike Iverson of Pasco holding the hand of a trapped 15-year-old girl at a rollover accident won first in August:

And the actual photo that was used in this AtomicTown cover won third in December:

Needless to say, I started 2010 with expectations as big as my head had become. All those NPPA wins meant I finished third in the year-end Region 11 point totals. Obviously, I never actually thought I was the third-best photographer in the region, which includes Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Alaska and a bunch of former Soviet countries, but I was still very excited. But in five completed months of judging this year, I’ve won precisely zero awards. Is it some well-timed humble pie or am I just in a funk?

I certainly haven’t felt like I’ve been eking by, and the addition of our monthly Sunday Extra staff photo pages has given me a new chance to produce in-depth work.

But even with the photographs I’ve made during the daily grind, I thought a few of my frames this year had a shot at winning something.

I tried to give this illustration a clearly manipulated look without being too chintzy looking for a story about digital manipulation of wildlife and outdoors photography:

Though I wasn’t really surprised when it didn’t win anything, I am surprised that a similarly crappy Photoshop job made the cover of Cosmopolitan.

After everything worked out so well in this Ams hockey jube, I thought it had a good chance, too:

Five-year-old Ryleigh McWilliams’ little stunt made for a fun feature:

I was also happy with the emotion of this Connell girls basketball celebration:

And while this tried-and-true jube juxtaposed with dejection could be stronger in the loss aspect, I held out some hope for it, as well:

But of all the contest disappointments so far this year, this lucky save by Spokane’s James Reid was the greatest:

It’s different and has some peak action and humor mixed in, but perhaps its subtlety was its downfall. The main judging page has a bunch of thumbnails that can be enlarged, or judges can click through all the entries, but if there are a large number of entries or the judges are pressed for time, it’s feasible that they only enlarge the thumbnails that jump out as possible winners.

More probable is that they just didn’t like it as much as the other sports entries. A different photo staff judges each region’s clips every month, so tastes vary widely. For example, the spot news category may have three very strong, storytelling and emotional house fire photos. Some judges may see this as redundant, opting to award one of them and finding the best of the rest, while others would pick the three they felt were strongest, regardless of overlapping subject matter. And then there’s the simple matter that what makes a photo good is completely subjective. This year’s disappointments are not new, and plenty of my photos from the last couple years never won anything despite my high hopes:

This shot of Jeremiah Sammy running down Ryan Mantle never won anything,

but I think it’s a better shot than this shot of Jamison Rowe making a rolling throw, which won third in an NPPA monthly contest.

It’s got better emotion and a cleaner background, though I’m sure Benton PUD might disagree.

Conversely, I’m sometimes surprised at some photos that do win. This shot of Joshua Adams of Granite Falls, Wash., watching Coyote slide at Hansen Park in Kennewick won second place in the features category last July:

Photographers are allowed nine entries per month in the NPPA contest, and while sometimes I’m torn over which photos to cut, leaner months have me combing through the previous month to find the best of what’s left. This shot of the dog slide is one of those photo reclamations.

This snap of a curious hen checking out her neighbor didn’t win any NPPA awards,

but won first place in Sports Shooter’s monthly contest and first place in the Washington/Oregon AP Photo Contest, which also earned me some prize money. Plus, it was selected as one of Editor & Publisher’s photos of the week. I like the shot, but it’s strange that this fun but ultimately meaningless shot is one of my most successful photos.

Having more awards doesn’t mean you’re a better photographer, but it sure feels great to win stuff. And unfortunately, contest wins are the most tangible measure of success for my very subjective line of work. Working on the story of the Burgess brothers earlier this year was far more rewarding than my slew of NPPA wins last year, but neither it nor the accompanying multimedia slideshow have won me anything and garnered less reader feedback than any number of lame bird photos I’ve made.

Such is the life of a tortured artist, I suppose, but my job isn’t just to make pretty pictures. My photos should tell a story, and I would gladly trade all the awards in the world for a chance to work more in-depth on those stories.

*Since writing this, May results have come in, and with a cosmic finger in my eye, I won third place in the spot news category. Usually, I’m a little anxious when I notice Region 11 results are in, slowly clicking through hoping to see my name pop up, and while I’m certainly not disappointed to have finally won a clip this year, it was strange to be upset when I saw my name under one of the winning images.


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