By Rachel Noto
When I first stepped off the bus onto the Gwinnett Technical College campus for my first look at the International Photographic Competition, I wasn't sure what to expect when I walk through the double doors and into the building itself.
I'd spent the past two months or so writing blog posts and tweets encouraging members to submit their images and tune in to watch the judging and IPC Live, but for all of that I was admittedly a little clueless. I had all of the benefits of entering the competition down, could recite five reasons why photographers should request a critique along with their images in my sleep, but even then, it's hard to compare the things I knew through research to what would actually happen in real life.
Would I be greeted by a large room of picky, snobby people harshly pulling apart each piece? A bored, overworked group of judges glassy-eyed after watching the thousandth image go by? An excitable crowd watching as each image is presented, screaming uproariously when one goes loan?
The answer is none of the above. We are first shepherded in to the break room to be given a pep talk by the chairman of the Photographic Exhibition Committee, Randy McNeilly, M.Photog.MEI.Cr., CPP, API, F-ASP, the man in charge of it all. It's clear that he takes his duty very seriously; his praise for the competition is unending, and he endeavors to impress upon the whole staff exactly how important the IPC is. "I think the skills our membership learns in this competition are essential for the future of this profession," he remarked, obviously genuinely invested in the competition itself. After over twenty-five years of involvement with the IPC, he has a keen understanding and insight into the effects the competition has on the people who enter and, in a greater sense, the climate of the photographic industry as a whole. With years of involvement judging art competitions, his praise comes with the weight of experience and maturity.
After the short welcome speech, we're set free to roam the campus, eagerly peeking into every room with an IPC sign on the door. I go first into the print judging room, and instead of a large crowd of people hovering over an image, I find a small setup of six judges huddled together maybe five feet from the canvas, and a seventh to the side, announcing the verdict on each piece. There are maybe an additional ten people either observing the process or setting up the prints to be presented in the correct order. All of the images going by had already merited in the days before, so the judging today is solely for admission into the loan collection.
It's a fairly small, quiet affair, but the air in all of the judging room is tense, almost reverent. It is immediately clear that they all take this very seriously, with a full understanding of the weight their decision on each piece holds. It isn't just a "yes" or a "no"; behind each image is a photographer wringing their hands behind a computer screen, hoping to hear the phrase "accepted into Loan." Any time an image goes loan, the mood in the room lifts a little. Sometimes there are little happy cheers from the judges, clearly pleased for the photographer who would be receiving good news.
The true measure of the judges' commitment to their duty, though, comes whenever a challenge arises. When a judge disagrees with a verdict, everything halts and a series of arguments and rebuttals follows, everyone comparing the elements they like about a piece and the things they find to be missing. It's always passionate, and gives the best insight into what goes on in a judge's mind as the seemingly endless stream of images and silent voting slides by. They obviously see things that I am completely blind to, skillfully pointing out specific lighting techniques that the photographer must have used and spouting complicated jargon that sails right over my head. After everyone has shared their opinion, they re-vote and a decision is reached.
"The judges are a team working to give the right score," explained Gary Hughes, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, trying to convey the dynamics of the small groups huddled in the dark rooms. "When judges issue challenges on images, it's easy to assume that things can get contentious, but in my experience, the atmosphere of the room tends to be more collaborative than argumentative. Judges defer to the knowledge of their peers when they have less expertise in an area, and I've seen an image that only received three Loan votes change to a unanimous vote after a round of debate."
Challenges seem to last as long as they need to, as long as the judges have something to say about the piece, which means a lot when there are hundreds of images going by each session.
When the judges finally break for a short reprieve from the constant stream of images, I slip out of the room and into the one I'd heard the most about, the broadcast room for IPC Live, a live stream where Booray Perry discusses the IPC and interviews judges and staff, hoping to provide insight into the mindset of the judges for people watching at home.
The interviewees at the moment are Linda Long, Cr.Photog., CPP, and Gary Hughes, M.Photog.Cr., CPP. Both Long and Hughes are taking the Judges Workshop so they can become judges for future competitions, and through the levity, there are moments of seriousness that reveal the esteem in which they hold the competition. "I was given so much by the masters that taught me, so I decided to give back," Long replied earnestly when asked why she had decided to take the Judges Workshop in the first place.
I'm struck in that moment by the depth of dedication and drive exhibited not just by Long, but every person I've met here today. They all wholeheartedly agree with chairman McNeilly when it comes to the importance of this competition, and not just for the people who have entered in it this year, but for generations of photographers to come and the future of the photographic industry itself. This conviction isn't just for the camera, either; every judge I manage to talk to on one of their breaks or during lunchtime is equally passionate about the competition, weary though they are from sitting in dark rooms all day judging photograph after photograph. Their enthusiasm is truly a testament to their faith in the significance of the IPC and its ability to take photographers' work to a higher level and to inspire them to Be More.
Rachel Noto is one of the summer interns wandering around the labyrinthine offices of PPA, enthusiastically taking pictures of her cat, and occasionally getting a little writing and design done. An Atlanta native, she's learned to embrace the feeling of getting lost every now and then, though she now spends most of the year in the gridded city of Savannah, Georgia, where she attends the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has a passion for food, cute animals, and communication in all of its forms.