‘The best photographic sequences had no story…and have no significance…’


There’s got to be SOME good work out there……© John MacPherson


The Banff Mountain Photography Competition was recently judged. Or not. I’m not entirely sure.

You see, the judges decided that no entries, from the five hundred or so submitted, were worthy of an award.


And all entries were apparently so dire that not even a runner-up award could be made.

What’s more, two of the judges Conrad Habing and Craig Richards have defended their decision to not award a winner in an article in The Globe and Mail rather provocatively titled ‘Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?’ written by another of their Banff competition judging colleagues, adjudicator Ian Brown, who comments:

This spring, I was an adjudicator of the 2013 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival photography competition. This week, my three fellow judges – all professional photographers and curators – and I announced that we couldn’t find a winner, and won’t be awarding a prize for the first time in 18 years. There isn’t even a runner-up….

We saw more than 500 entries. Not one of them did the job. The interesting question is why. Human beings have taken an estimated 3.5 trillion photographs since the first snapshot, of a Paris street, appeared in 1838. As many as 20 per cent were uploaded in the past two years. Why are most of them so forgettable?

Even the entries that were remotely in the neighbourhood of telling a story – and most were hopelessly lost – were edited incomprehensibly. (Not experimentally. Incomprehensibly.) In other words, the best photographic sequences taken by amateur and professional wilderness photographers alike had no perceptible story, and therefore no significance.

I’ve not seen any of the entrants work so I cant possibly comment on the standard, and I have never heard of the judges before so can’t comment on their ability to judge, nor their ability as actual artists or photographers to practice their craft.

However what I can do is read the competition rules of entry (which I assume is in fact a contract) where it states that ‘Grand Prize – C$3,000 will be awarded to the winner of the best overall photographic essay.’  Note the use of the words ‘will‘ and ‘best overall‘ in a document that has some form of ‘contractual’ status.

Now maybe I’m stupid, but even assuming they were ALL bad, which I doubt, there MUST have been one entry that was better than the others. Surely? And upon which the accolade of winner could have been bestowed?

So, having decided to not award a prize, as the rules of entry (the contract) states they will do, and for which they accepted a $10 entry fee (x around 500 entries is…well work it out) will they now refund the entrants $10 entry fee as they have in fact failed to meet their contractual obligation to entrants? And if they are not offering a refund, why not?

Well known UK mountain photographer Henry Iddon is scathing in his comments about Ian Brown’s article:


4:56 AM on June 25, 2013

This is one of the most offensive articles I have ever read by a judge of any creative competition, it is disrespectful to both the event organisers and the participants. And shows an arrogance beyond belief on the part of the judges.

It would have been perfectly reasonable to select one winner from 500 entries – the best of a bad bunch – shall we say and then make a reasoned comment on the standard of this years entries. As I have seen happen at other photography and film / doco festival awards.

While such competitions undoubtedly invite a broad range of entries across a range of abilities I think it safe to assume that there was a percentage of entries submitted by those with significant track records in photography, both commercially and within arts practice. There is no doubt in my mind that there would have been submissions made by those who have lectured at university level and with post graduate ‘arts’ based qualifications. And that have exhibited widely in major galleries.

The judges seemed to have approached the whole process as though doing a critique of undergraduate photography students work.

He also appears to suggest that all entries were taken using digital capture. How can he be certain that entries were not scanned versions of colour hand prints taken on large format – 5×4 or 108 ?

The award was for a photo essay and I quote the entry guidelines:

*”A photo essay (or photographic essay) is a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke emotions in the viewer. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order, or they may consist of non ordered photographs which may be viewed all at once or in an order chosen by the viewer to reveal their character and dynamics.”

Mr Brown wants a story – the guidelines (terms of reference for entrants and judges) suggest the images can either tell a story OR evoke emotions in the viewer. The guidelines also state the images may be sequential in nature OR consist of non ordered photographs which may be viewed all at once or in an order chosen by the viewer to reveal their character and dynamics.

I appreciate judges bring their own personal histories and opinions when viewing images ( judging by its nature is subjective) but is the most important thing not to always refer back to the competitions rules and intentions, guidelines (terms of reference) and above all celebrate the efforts of the entrants whatever the standard in a given years.

Henry did also make his feelings clear to the organizers and received a reply from Christine Thél

Dear Henry,
This announcement of the results of the 2013 Banff Mountain Photography Competition is a very difficult one for us. Our desire to showcase the best in mountain-themed photographic essays means just that – we aim to recognize the best stories told through still images.
This year our jury members all agreed that although this year’s competition was studded with brilliant images, they were unable to choose a photo essay which met their expectations of an award-winning photo essay, so they have chosen not to award a winner.
The jurors were seeking a sequence of images that convey a compelling story or message – with each image strong enough to stand on its own while conveying a greater narrative when viewed in sequence. They believe a story told in pictures needs to have something at stake emotionally, and is more than simply a series of pictures that are brought together by a theme or idea.
The jury saw many groups of photographs that conveyed wilderness and wildlife themes, but fell short of conveying a larger vision or story. The jury believed that key elements of emotion or narrative arc were missing in the editing process, including critical consideration of how one photograph links to the next. Like any well-written story, photo essays require planning, structure, and editing.
Please don’t be disheartened, the jury emphasized how many stunning images they viewed and feel if photographers are allowed ample time to plan, the competition in its current format will succeed in the future. In fact, we’ll be posting the 2014 guidelines shortly.
Our independent jury was unanimous in its decision. Of the four jury members, three are professional photographers and educators, and the fourth is a well-respected journalist.
With kind regards,
Christine Thél
Festival Coordinator
Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, Film & Media
The Banff Centre
tel: 403 762 6347


The entry form helpfully states for the guidance of entrants:

Not adhering to the guidelines may disqualify your entry

I wonder does this apply also to the judges? They appear to have strayed from their contractual remit to actually make an award. They were there to reward the best ‘overall’, whatever form that took, and they have failed to do so.

Did the judges receive any financial reward, or ‘expenses’ for carrying out their duties? Or did they refuse any payment as they could not fulfill their contractual obligation to make an award?

Me? Putting aside for a moment the merit of the work submitted and the ability of the judges, I’m curious about the dangerous precedent this sets. Does the Banff Festival really think that it’s acceptable to set up a photographic competition with a significant cash prize (C$3,000), state that an award WILL be made to the best ‘overall’ entrant, attract a considerable number of paying participants, then decide they are all rubbish, make no award, and keep the $3k and the entry fees?

I don’t think that’s morally acceptable, and I’m pretty certain it’s not legally acceptable either. But take that opinion at face value because I’m no lawyer. However if I had entered this competition and the organizers refused to refund my entry fee I’d certainly be consulting a lawyer for a considered opinion, and advice on a way to retrieve my $10.

Maybe the organizers will confirm if they are, or are not refunding all entry fees? Or perhaps offer other comments to justify their actions? I’ll gladly publish their response.

Update June 25th: Banff respond. Press release here.

Update June 26th: various of the judges say they may be willing to comment on/discuss their decisions. Ian Brown is on vacation but says he will respond when he returns.

Here’s a few questions they might like to respond to, but I’ll put my interest in all of this in context. I was born in a mountain town, earned a proportion of my living through working in and around mountain areas (and continue to do so) and have a long personal and family connection with mountains and photography going back over 150 years. I’ve seen the Banff Festival work in traveling exhibitions in my home town in Scotland, and it is aspirational stuff. I’ve considered entering the photography competition (but have not so far) but am always interested in the results as this is a very prestigious event attracting a very very high calibre of entries, and it would be fair to say this comes from some of the best practitioners in this field in the world.

I’m also interested in the profile of ‘competitions’ in this industry and the ways they can shape and influence the profession. As a teacher of photography I’m aware of the (hugely positive) role competitions such as this can play in attracting and enthusing young and aspiring photographers, and finally, I’m interested in fairness and transparency in such events because I see too much of the opposite in many of them.

But my bottom line is, you cannot offer a to run a competition, promise a major cash award, then announce in effect that  ‘nah you’re all rubbish, we’re keeping your entry fees and the award, oh and we’ll also publicly humiliate you all in print in a national newspaper and generate advertising revenue off the back of the ‘controversy’. That sets a new low in the outdoor and mountain photographic industry, and if it went unchallenged would set a unacceptable precedent. In my humble opinion.


1) The competition rules clearly state: “Entries will be judged….and ….C$3,000 will be awarded to the winner of the best overall photographic essay.”  It clearly states you “will” make an award and that that award will be to the “best overall” essay. There are no other rules I can find which state that there is some arbitrary external standard against which the submitted work will be compared, and if found to have failed to meet that standard, will be rejected The rules place a clear moral (and I consider legal) obligation upon the judges to consider the entries against each other and determine one as being better than the others. Why did you not do this?

2) As you can see from Henry Iddon’s letter reproduced above (re ‘ordered’ and ‘non-ordered sequences’), your interpretation of the rules seems to differ dramatically from the printed competition rules (the contract). Can you explain why you felt this divergence from your contractual obligation was appropriate?

3) Did you or your colleagues receive any form of financial reward or expenses for being a judge?

4) If yes to point 3, having been ‘contracted’ to be a judge, and in accepting the role tacitly (or in writing?) agreeing to follow the rules of the competition and ‘make an award’, but then not doing so (see point 1 above) will you return any expenses you have claimed from the competition organizers as you have failed to meet your obligations?

5) How do you justify using your confidential access to the judging process to write an exceptionally pejorative and critical article for a newspaper, in which you publicly castigate entrants in what is a very controversial piece, and which no doubt drove many readers to the page thus generating revenue for your paper through advertizing?

6) The Banff Festival has managed to make an award in this particular event every year for 18 years, according to the press reports, and yet this year four judges could not determine that one single entry amidst several hundred others, had more merit and deserved an award. In fact the judges deemed the work so dire that not even a runner-up award could be made. Does this not say more about the limited vision of the current judges than the quality of the entrants? (Or would you have us believe that the previous year’s judges were so limited in their vision that anything that appeared to be in focus was in with a chance?)

7) Did you consider the (legal and moral) implications of adjudicating over an awarding process which demanded payment to enter (generating a significant amount of revenue for the organizer) and which placed a clear contractual obligation upon you to make an award, and then you refuse to award the C$3000 prize?

8) This might come across as semantics but whether you like it or not provision of written guidelines & obligations (the rules) in return for the acceptance of money (the entry fee) constitutes a contract. Entrants are bound by this, and it is clearly stated in the competition entry in the phrase “Not adhering to the guidelines may disqualify your entry”.  The judges are also bound by this contract. As far as I can see the only people here who have clearly NOT met their contractual obligation are the judges. Do you not think it would be fair to declare your role untenable, step down and have someone else come in, judge the work and actually fulfil the organizer’s contractual obligation to declare a winner?





Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. b8932 says:

    I can confirm that all entries were not digitally captured, I for example submitted 6×7 Medium format.

    • Would you be willing to offer some personal comment on how you feel about the award not being made, that no winner was selected, and no runner-up was possible either because the entries were apparently so bad?

      And how you feel about the unusual (in my experience) step of the judges publicly castigating and humiliating the cohort of entrants in a national newspaper which one of the judges writes for.

      I use the word ‘humiliated’, but do you actually feel humiliated? Or have you ‘learned’ something from the experience? If so what?

      And finally, have you entered this competition before, and will you enter again?

      And if you don’t want to make public comment that’s fine also.

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