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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

DOING IT BY THE BOOK: Judging the 2015 Momento Pro Australian Photo Book Awards

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The 2014 Australian Photobook of the Year Finalists stack

The 2014 Australian Photobook of the Year Finalists stack



On the 30th of January six identities from the Australian publishing and photography scene gathered in Sydney to review a selection of the best photo books from Australian authors and to select a recipient for the title Momento Pro Australian Photo Book of the Year. Prior to this event 100 books had been submitted in the award by Australian photographers working in a wide range of book forms that employ photography.


The judges for the award were: Shaune Lakin (Curator of Photography @ National Gallery Of Australia), Diana Hill [Publisher @ Murdoch Books), Sonya Jeffery (Books at Manic), Kim Hungerford (Art and Design Consultant and Buyer @ Kinokuniya), Michael Howard (Joint Art Director @ Sydney Morning Herald) and Doug Spowart (Research Fellow – Australian Library of Art, State Library of Queensland).



The judges deliberating    PHOTO: Doug Spowart


The process started 10 days earlier when the judges were sent a USB drive containing the 100 PDF files. Within a few days the judges were to review the files and select their top 12 books. These results where then collated by the Momento Pro team to give 15 finalists. They were:

  • Gold Coast                                          Ying Ang
  • Nonna to Nana                                  Jessie + Jacqueline DiBlasi
  • Typhoon                                             Stephen Dupont
  • Better Half                                         Jackson Eaton
  • Lover of Home                                   Odette England
  • The Beginning                                    Brendan Esposito
  • The Kings of KKH                              Andrea Francolini
  • Bedrooms of the Fallen                     Ashley Gilbertson
  • Tribal PNG                                         David Kirkland
  • In the Folds of Hills                           Kristian Laemmle-Ruff
  • Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them    Jesse Marlow
  • SALT                                                  Emma Phillips
  • Nauru: What was taken and what was given   Kelvin Skewes
  • We Met a Little Early But I Get to Love You Longer Raphaela Rosella.
  • Fibro Dreams                                    Glenn Sloggett

Of these finalists, one book was published by an academic institution, three were published through an independent publisher and two were unpublished – the remaining books were self-published. The diversity of subject matter covered by the books included a portraiture and documentary cookbook, ethnographic documentary, social documentary, conceptual projects about human relationships of place and memory, books about irony and humour or glimpsed juxtapositions of subjects seen and photographed in the street. The books mainly fitted the conventional codex model and were trade printed and bound. One ‘photo book’ was a newspaper styled publication, and another was a deluxe artists’ book laparello of an exceptionally large size.



More debating … PHOTOS: Doug Spowart


As the judges came together at the Momento Pro facility in Chippendale they introduced themselves and participated in briefings conducted by Chairman of Jurors Heidi Romano, Director of Photo Book Melbourne and Libby Jeffery from the award sponsor Momento Pro. Then each judge engaged with the books – turning pages, cracking spines, smelling paper and inks, looking, reading, touching and connecting with the narrative and the experience that each book may contain. As all books were originally seen as digital images on screen there were some surprises as the digital version presented quite different experience to the physical printed book.

At this time individual conversations took place, ideas and responses to books shared. Opinions about photo books expressed and probed. Some of the key discussion points related to questions like ‘What is a photo book?’, and the validity of certain book topics and forms like cookbooks, newspapers, grand artists’ book productions – were they able to be considered as photo books? This part of the process was useful as it enabled a range of ideas to emerge from the broad views and experience of the judging panel.

The six judges then gathered around a large table – each book was presented for discussion at the end of which a vote was made as to whether it would be held-over in a ‘for further consideration’ stack or not. The discussions enabled each judge to express their experience of the book, opinions about narrative, sequencing, design and typography, production values as well as how the books ‘fitted’ with the idea of the photo book. One interesting consideration was the suitability of the book’s format, design and structure as a container to hold and present the narrative.

Some of the other discussion points that emerged included:

  • A trend which is emerging where the cover of the book has no photograph on it or minimal text to identify it;
  • The absence of the author’s name on the cover of the book;
  • The length of the book – many books the judges felt were just too long;
  • The editing and sequencing of images – many judges felt that they’d like to have done a review of the book to give an opportunity for the great photos and story to be more effectively told;
  • Texts within books need quality editing as well;
  • Aspects of book size and binding – a concern was ‘whether the physical nature of the book gets in the way of its storytelling potential’;
  • Design features that do not support the narrative; and
  • Ethics in documentary photography in relation to what level of personal information about the subject is OK to disclose in a book.

As a result of this judging segment the 15 finalists were reduced to six books. These books were interrogated further with particular attention being paid to the expectation that a great photo book should create, as it is activated by the viewer/reader, a moment where the book’s design, photographs, texts, layout, sequencing all combine to express a powerful statement, narrative or emotional response.

Of these six books selected Heidi Romano was to comment that ‘they were equal to any of the world’s current great photo books’. One final review and discussion needed to follow to select the ultimate title winner. This was preceded with discussion regarding the message that awards like these make to the photo book community about what constitutes exemplary work. The participating judges recognized the importance of this aspect of the final award selection. Ultimately all of the books were given highly commended awards with Kelvin Skewes’ Nauru: What was taken and what was given being awarded the title of Runner Up. First prize was awarded to Raphaela Rosella’s We Met a Little Early But I Get to Love You Longer book. Although unpublished the book had been printed and bound by the Momento Pro team to the author’s specifications. It featured personal narratives written by young mothers, the design and page-turning/text sequencing, powerful imagery and the inclusion of personal notes and letters extended the story and loaded the emotional response potential for the viewer.


Rossellas book

We Met a Little Early But I Get to Love You Longer Raphaela Rosella

Images and words from this book are available HERE: RAPHAELA_ROSELLA-We_met_Book


Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 12.32.04 pm

Nauru: What was taken and what was given Kelvin Skewes

The details of this book are available HERE


The award winners receive:

Winner – $1,500 cash + $8,000 Momento Pro credit

Runner Up – $1,500 Momento Pro credit

People’s Choice – $500 Momento Pro credit

An additional award will be the ‘peoples choice’ from votes received during the exhibition of the books at the Asia Pacific Photobook Archive at the Photo Book Melbourne event.

This award helps to define what great Australian photobooks can be is and has rewarded great Australian photobooks. Additionally it will continue to fuel commentary and debate around the nature of the practice in Australia and serve to extend interest in and recognition of the discipline and the practitioners of the discipline in Australia.


Doug Spowart

February 12, 2015



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