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In a photobook judging...

In a photobook judging…


The photobook: And the winner is…


Any field of human endeavor seems to have connected with it a need for measurement, for qualification and quantification – a need to find the best, the fastest, tallest, smartest, dumbest, prettiest and ugliest. The photobook is no exception. Every year when the call goes out for entries to be submitted, or when the winners of numerous awards are announced the worldwide photobook community responds.

To attract those who make, or share an interest in, the photobook there are many incentives to participate in awards including:

  • Winning an award leads to sales for the book
  • Winning awards enhances reputations and future opportunities for the maker/s
  • Winning awards can provide opportunities to publish through prize money and/or ‘in-kind’ services
  • Entering awards provide an opportunity to present your ideas, your stories and your creation process to other participants of the discipline
  • By entering an award your concepts and narrative expression can reach extended audiences.

Additionally those who coordinate awards also receive compensation. Companies promote their products and services through organising and/or sponsoring awards. Organisations like art museums, professional associations, and significant commentators of the discipline all stand to gain prominence through the awards that they support. An interesting cross-section of photobook awards could include: The Kassel Photobook Dummy Awards, InFocus Photobook Exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, Photobook Bristol Festival, New Zealand Photobook of the Year Award, and The Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. The income from entry fees can also go towards offsetting the costs of prize monies and running the award.

Any award would not take place without a judging, but how are judges selected? What are the attributes of a good judge? Generally judges come from the various, and sometimes disparate, groups within the discipline for example: a photographer, a publisher, a book designer, a printer or a critic. As each judge brings to the judging his or her ideas and opinions regarding what makes a great photobook, the assessment session can be an interesting space to witness.

There is one common discussion point for any photobook judging – What is a photobook? The diversity of the discipline defies a standard definition and may include: newspaper styled items, funky zines, and the bespoke hand-made ‘artists book’, self-published books using digital POD technologies, trade published books and designer confections. Photobooks can contain photographs only, they can be books with photographs and accompanying texts, prose, poetry, captions and they also can be complex and sophisticated design experiences – book as object. In a photobook competition all these can compete for the overall award title. It’s like all the Olympic pool-based events being run simultaneously in the one pool, from high diving to the 100 metre dash –– Chaos…!

Getting a result requires consensus that can only be achieved through a process of review, discussion and the sharing of opinions and insights. Perhaps the assessment task would be simpler if there was a solitary judge.

Another concern is the number of books could a judge be reasonably expected to fully engage with before being overcome by the inability to fairly and consistently consider each entry. Other questions arise: Do strong and articulate judges sway the panel decision? Does every book say the same thing to every reader? And how does bias for or against certain book styles, photographers, and publishers or photographic content affect the judging outcome?

In the world of photobooks one thing is for certain – awards and competitions are not going to go away anytime soon. Social scientist Pierre Bourdieu in his book ‘Photography: a middle brow art’ commented that:

It is no accident that passionate photographers are always obliged to develop the aesthetic theory of their practice, to justify their existence as photographers by justifying the existence of photography as a true art. 1

Perhaps all those who, through organizing, entering and judging awards ultimately help to create dialogue, definition and an aesthetic that justifies the photobook’s existence as a ‘true art’.


Dr Doug Spowart August 25, 2016


  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. Stanford, USA: Stanford University Press, 1996.



Text+Image ©2016 Doug Spowart

Written by Cooper+Spowart

September 9, 2016 at 12:19 pm

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