The Art of Encouragement

A couple of things over the last few weeks really got to me. One made me annoyed, another…well…just moved me, with good old emotion. But all of it made me stop, and think.

First was the very peculiar decision by the judges in the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival Photography Competition to not award a winner. I’ve written about this here. Now, I’ve not seen the entrant’s work and maybe the judge’s criticism of it is wholly accurate, but they were still contractually obliged to determine a winner. However, all that aside, the aspect that really perplexed me was the way that (three of the four) judges, Ian Brown, Conrad Habing and Craig Richards subsequently used their privileged position as adjudicators as a platform to comment on the general state of photography in a rather vitriolic article titled “Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?”  in which they poured scorn on the Banff competition entrants and their work. Not content with the humiliation inflicted on entrants by not awarding a winner, they saw fit to further embarrass them in a national newspaper with comments such as:

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.


Conrad Habing, one of my co-judges, a former fine-art photographer who has since turned to painting, dubbed it “an incredible surge in mediocrity.” The entrants “were trying to make up for a lack of vision with a bag of tricks” – vision being “a point of view that says something about yourself.”


Another judge, Craig Richards – an internationally exhibited photographer, and the curator of photography at Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies – was even blunter: “People take photographs because they can, not because they should.”

Oddly, and despite the competition rules clearly stating what was actually required:

“….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.”

….the judges seem to have been fixated only on ‘story’ and as they apparently could not discern any they dismissed everything else, which seems to have included ’emotion’ as well, going so far as to declare the whole lot so unutterably bad there wasn’t even anything worthy of a runner up award.

Author Ian Brown continued in his dismissal of the majority of current photography with the observation:

Maybe it’s harder to be moved by a photograph these days because there are so many of them……

The volume alone guarantees that most are forgettable. So why do we take them? For the same reason addicts are addicted to anything: to kill the pain of awareness, the uncomfortable difficulty of actually seeing. I admit that this is just a theory, but I watch tourists take the same four photographs minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day in downtown Banff, and it’s a strangely upsetting experience.

Addicts? Pain? Upsetting?

Oh dear.

If I was a first-time visitor to Banff, with my family, sharing a moment that was memorable in a place that is so impressive, we’d like to have that image to remind us, to pass on to our grandchildren. It would be a little emotional memento of our family, and of the mundane beauty and significance of our lives. Not “killing the pain of awareness” but instead celebrating that awareness – the joy of the new, the here and now, and just being ourselves.

Renowned Photo Editor and writer Stella Kramer, in a thoughtful piece on her blog “Support: shouldn’t it be a two-way street?” teases out a little bit more about the responsibility we in the photographic ‘community’ have towards each other, and the power that social media enables us to wield:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about support and what it means. Is it something you can ask for, but not give back? Are we obligated to return the favor, or is it even important to worry about that?

If you’ve had a photo project on indie-go-go, or, or Kickstarter asking for money, I wonder: have you contributed to other photographer’s projects?

Sometimes self-interest has to be balanced by the greater good; the greater needs of the community. How else can we protect and promote what is great about photography? I don’t mean scratch each other’s backs, I mean help others (if you can) to achieve their goals as well as your own.

Photographers have always been thought of as loners, and for some people they revel in that. But it’s through networking, and getting out, and talking with others, and reading about what’s going on that can help to create a stronger and more unified community.

Empty chair © Sabrina Henry

Empty chair © Sabrina Henry

This resonated for me as I’ve recently both sought advice through social media, and been asked to provide advice. Not just a casual “can you tell me what lens to use” piece of advice, but a request for deeply personal, observational and insightful comment on the worth and resonance of the work we do. And in both cases the interactions have been generously offered and graciously received, and been hugely rewarding for all concerned. And the important aspect of ‘mutually supportive’ ways of working such as kickstarter, is that the investment is as much in the individual as it is in the financial aspect of their project.

And then to eloquently underline Stella’s sentiments, I came across a very emotive post from Sabrina Henry, “Photographs that matter” where she talks of a dear friend and colleague Sue with whom she had shared many moments, as a friend but particularly as a photographer, and who has just passed away:

She was always though so much better than me in many ways. Sue knew what made people tick, how to work with their weaknesses and make them better versions of themselves. If there was potential in you, she would find it and make you believe in yourself. And it was that way with my photography. Unlike some people, she knew that you couldn’t tell a good photograph just by looking at it; you have to feel it. I would share my latest image with her and we’d spend time talking about it. When I made the picture above, she absolutely loved it and would come back and talk about it often. She felt the emotion of the empty chair and connected with the loneliness, the tender sadness of someone who was once there but no more. When she became ill, this picture became a symbol for what we knew was ahead but we refused to talk about it in those terms. Instead she used it to encourage me, to remind me to keep making photographs that mattered to her and to others. Along with just a handful of people, she has been the biggest supporter of my photography.

There was one other photograph Sue and I discussed. Following ART last year, I sent her links to a few blog posts people who had attended had written. She was particularly taken with this one by Jacob Lucas.

What Next © Jacob F Lucas

What Comes Next © Jacob F Lucas

As she had with Matt’s picture, Sue asked me to let Jacob know how much she enjoyed this picture and how his work has had an impact on her. She wanted me to encourage Jacob to pursue that same kind of meaningful work. In many ways, Sue saw herself in this photograph and that’s the universality we always speak of when we talk about making pictures that matter. Just as its title “What Next“, I am sure as she looked to her future and the uncertainty of her family’s life without her, she had the same question but this picture gave her peace. She had no fear (perhaps only briefly in moments made up of seconds) and this is a reflection of the calmness she had about what was going to happen next.

And as is the way of the web, and its long reach, that image popped up again, tied to the ongoing story of mutual ‘support’ being explored by Sue, Sabrina and Stella, and now Jacob F Lucas. Jacob is a Seattle based photographer, and as the author of the image that had so moved Sue, he responded on his blog ‘Beyond Photography’….

The other day I received one of the most impactful and unexpected emails that I’ve ever received. It’s taken me a little while to fully understand and comprehend the contents of that email because put simply, what was said of my photography could well be the most important piece of feedback I’ve received thus far in my pursuit of my art.

The email came from my good friend and fellow photographer, Sabrina Henry. The email was about a friend of hers, Sue, who Sabrina had discussed photography with, discussed her own art with and discussed pursuits such as ART (Artist Round Table) that she’d developed to help others (myself included) with their own art. Until Monday, I had no idea that these discussions had taken place. Sabrina and Sue had in fact talked about ART experiences after the round table last year, and some of the attendee reactions (such as mine) at some length. I had no idea, but Sue fell in love with the image I posted, entitled “What Comes Next”, alongside my reaction post (included in the previous link, and on this post, above).

Tragically, Sue was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer late last year and passed away on Sunday. Sabrina had a chance to visit with Sue on Friday before she died, where Sue had an opportunity to again bring up my photograph. Sabrina’s email to me on Monday was to pass on Sue’s final thoughts on how much she enjoyed my image and how much it meant to her. The image brought her a peace and comfort, helped to allay concerns of her family left behind, and helped her to accept that she was about to move on from this life to what comes next. She wanted me to know that my art has an importance and to encourage me to keep pursuing it.

Which brings us full circle, and to those judges at Banff, who had an opportunity to…….well….simply, offer encouragement.  To tease out the best in people, by example. And to make a difference, at best by finding something worth applauding, or at worst eloquently offering their guidance, thoughtful critique and motivation to entrants to try much much harder next time. But who instead chose a different course. Looking for ‘the story’ is a laudable aim. But to let that blinker you, and dismiss the storytellers and everything else they have to offer you, is an act you all may come to regret.

For me the “pain of awareness” is not something to stifle, but to celebrate, because it reminds us we’re alive.  Jacob and Sabrina know that only too well, and so did Sue. And so do all those people in Banff with their cameras who are joyously shrugging off  “the uncomfortable difficulty of actually seeing”  and reveling in open-eyed wonder at all that surrounds them.

I’ll leave the last word to Jacob because it should serve as a reminder that what we each have to offer is considerable, but we may not ever know it, and those of us who do make that discovery should consider ourselves very, very lucky:

“I was floored when I read this. Humbled. Proud. Sad for my friend Sabrina who lost someone close to her. Sad for Sue and her family. Elated that my image could comfort someone so much at the end of their life. Shocked that my art could have such an impact. Grateful that someone thought to encourage me in such a way.”



(For information on ART – Artists Round Table 2013 events contact Sabrina Henry)

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 (19 Comments)

  1. David Jinks says:

    Judge’s photographic experience aside, I’m not sure they are fully aware of what narrative really means.

    In a medium such as film or video, which is truly temporal, narrative often takes precedence over visuals. Asking the Banff entrants to submit a 50 word description to support their narrative driven collection of images would indicate that those setting the competition entrance qualifications do not fully appreciate this aspect. 50 words is barely a film log line, let alone a synopsis. If this was central to the competition the judges should have realised this.

    This fiasco, and it is a fiasco, seems to have been handled in a very amateurish way. From the start until the finish. Taking over a week to respond to comments on the internet is a poor show for any organisation who relies heavily on the internet and social media to drive their aims and product. Not only do they need to learn how to manage their judges, they could do with a lesson in corporate communication. The world is quick to judge and come to it’s own conclusion, even if the Banff judges are not. A more timely response would have shown more respect to one of the communities it was set up to support.

    3/10 – must try harder.

    • Thanks for commenting David.You make a good point that was not lost on me, that the judges’ performance is also under scrutiny, something they appear to have forgotten. Yes, could have been handled better in many ways.

  2. sabrina says:

    Thank you John, for sharing your thoughts and my post. I know Sue would be thrilled (and very surprised) to be able to encourage even more people through this blog. Her loss is being felt very deeply by all who knew and loved her but as we turn to celebrate her life next week, this post will be a shining example of how we can carry on her legacy of support and encouragement.

  3. Jacob Lucas says:

    Hey John, thank you for sharing this post and for including my post (and Sabrina’s) in it. The ripples that a simple message of encouragement can have are certainly being felt as waves near and far. I hadn’t heard of the Banff photography competition “saga” until this post… but photo competitions are always subjective like that. I don’t ever plan on entering the image I posted with my side of Sue’s story in any such contests, and if I did (and even if it placed or won) the impact that it would have there in that arena would simply pale in comparison to the impact of helping just one person find peace and comfort.

    • Hi Jacob, my pleasure, yours was was a tale (and its ripples) worth sharing. For me it just underlined something that judges often fail to do and its be clear in their mind about the difference between critique and criticism and the effects that each can have. The former is all about being informative, offering guidance and direction, which can really help people. The latter when done negatively can be destructive and demotivating. Judging is not just about saying ‘this is crap’ or ‘this is good’ its about demonstrating that you have some insight into precisely why its crap, or good. Too many people want to ‘change the world’ and as you so beautifully demonstrate simply helping one person can often be enough.

  4. Stan B. says:

    I must say I’m a bit conflicted about this one and certainly don’t have all the “facts” as to the nature of the competition, the quality of the entries, etc, etc. But on the face of it, I kinda like what these judges did. Everyone complains about the sameness of imagery these days, but who does what to really shake it up and change things? Not long ago, Gary Knight made some kind of grand declaration that he was only gonna consider work that was somehow or other truly unique and beyond the usual in some competition that he was involved in. Uh huh, as if saying it guaranteed it. The usual non solution pseudo response.

    At least these guys had the courage of conviction to actually do something, and the fact that three of the four were actual photographers also lends to the validity of their action. Some of the judges these days are a major reason themselves as to why such mediocrity continues to prevail. No, it’s not a solution in and of itself, but at the least, it is a shot across the bow, a wake up call to anyone listening, one that must echo and intensify into yet more meaningful (and yes, supportive) actions.

    And the entrants definitely deserve there money back, or at very least a vote on how to put their money to better use in furthering that very cause.

    • Hi Stan thanks for your comments. Like you I dont have all the facts re the quality of entrants work.

      No matter – what we can see for sure, and its what I take issue with – is that there is a contract between entrants and competition organizers/judges – and that clearly states that an award will be made. Thats pretty straightforward.

      AFAIK it appears to be a legally binding contract whether a ‘competition’ or anything else, and the judges broke that contract. And not only did they fail to honour their obligation, they kept the entry fees, and nowhere in the rules does it state that that’s a likely outcome. So morally, legally they got it wrong.

      That aside, to publicly denigrate entrants and use the platform of a national newspaper that one judge writes for to do it, create ‘controversy’ and drive up page hits, just strikes me as wrong on many levels.

      What could they have done?

      Well make an award as they were duty bound to do, but to clearly and reasonably state in their judges comments what they felt was wrong with the other entries that disappointed them – I mean there must have been some work that was better than all the others, or would the judges have us believe that every other year for 18 years it was all hunky dory and somehow this year the standard was overall exactly the same – flat dull and lifeless. Hmmm.

      Bottom line for me – competitions, love them or hate them, have their place, and they encourage people to practice the art and craft of photography but the management of this one was badly thought out, poorly executed and reflected badly on all concerned. And it could so easily have been much much better and stood out as a thoughtful example of pushing the standards higher.

      Entrants paid for, and expected to receive adjudication, not lose their entry fee and be humiliated in a national paper. It sets a bad precedent.

  5. Henry Iddon says:

    Thanks for your comments Stan.

    My issue with the judges is they failed to consider the guidelines to entrants, they wanted linear sequencing where as the guidelines state that the essay could be viewed in a linear fashion OR as the sum of it’s part. There is also an assumption that entries were poor because they were the result of digital capture and a lack of ‘considered’ image making. I know for a fact that some entries were taken on film and the submitted files were from scanned hand prints.

    The judges comments suggesting over use of digital imaging and manipulation are somewhat ironic considering that one of the most well known landscape photographers – Ansel Adams – manipulated and controlled his negatives / prints a huge amount.

    It’s also somewhat ironic that the thing that is moving photography forward is digital imaging, new media and the non linear presentation of work. Prof. Fred Ritchen ( Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts ) looks into this in his new book ” Bending the Frame:
    Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen ” ISBN 978-1-59711-120-1

    I’m not aware of any other writing on photography by Ian Brown, or his position with Canadian Photography education or critical debate. I’m assuming he is very well informed on issues within both ‘mainstream’ and contemporary photography. Then again assumptions can be wrong…

    • Thanks for commenting Henry.

      You make valid points. For me ‘judgement’ – if it is to be done well, must take into consideration the current trends and values within the craft, and whilst reflecting technological advances made, at the same time keep a keen eye backwards towards the ‘classic’ roots of it all. I got a sense here of judges caught somewhat uncomfortably in a digital world of imagery and not entirely certain of the way to proceed. Certainly Ian Brown’s later lamentation in the newspaper about much of digital being ‘forgettable’ gives some weight to that. But again, that’s all supposition.

      ALL photography is digital as far as I am concerned – it all starts with the action of one finger. And sadly that’s also what the judges appear to have offered entrants.

  6. RJ says:

    So some judges in a Canadian photography competition thought the entries were so mediocre they felt they couldn’t award any prizes, and then one of them, Ian Brown, decided to write about the enervating experience in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian journal.

    Ho hum – welcome to Canada.

    Henry Iddon’s comment above give the impression he was one of the unfortunate entrants. Henry writes that he was “not aware of any other writing on photography by Ian Brown, or his position with Canadian Photography education or critical debate. [and assumes] he is very well informed on issues within both ‘mainstream’ and contemporary photography. Then again assumptions can be wrong…”

    Ian Brown is a journalist, despite that he is quite a likable chap. I don’t think he is generally regarded as a ‘go to’ guy when it come to photography but having a TV persona, could be what passes for a ‘personality’ in Canada. He is married to Globe and Mail film critic Johanna Schneller.

    Brown’s critical comment, indeed all critical comment on photography, surely adds to the debate and should be welcomed.

    • Hi Rj thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I don’t doubt that Ian Brown is a likable chap, I’m quite sure we could enjoy a beer and a chat about skiing, photography and the ho-humminess of Canada (fwiw I really like the country and its people).

      However whilst I agree with your general remarks about critical debate being good, this was NOT a debate, and the ‘critical’ aspect amounts only to the judges pouring scorn on the entrants. This was soap-boxing. The entrants had no voice in the article. Brown spoke (disparagingly) and allowed his fellow judges the opportunity to speak also, but did not think of extending that courtesy to the entrants. And before you say they could comment in the comments section, yes they could, but that’s a wholly different thing from being actively sought out to offer an opinion.

      All that aside, the judges had a moral and legal duty to determine a winner. The rules did not state that if the judges were bored witless they could decide not to award. All round this was a fiasco. The not awarding a winner I could let slide, but publicly denigrating the entrants and their work in social media and the press is just a step too far for me.

    • David Jinks says:


      “Ho hum – welcome to Canada.”

      I would say that’s not a great welcome then.

      If the remarks made in the original article had been made as a result of a British competition they no doubt have garnered comments such as “typical high and mighty, toffee-nosed Brit” etc.
      Which is not, my experience of Canada. Certainly not of BC.

      That aside, the fact that Ian Brown is a journalist strikes me even more that he was making the most of an opportunity to make a story. Let’s face it, that’s what journo’s do. And he did, by writing about it in the national press. Almost proof in itself.

      I agree that there is nothing wrong with making critical comments. We can all do it. However, critique also means finding the worth in something. It is all to easy to pick fault, and unfortunately this appears to have been the default action.

      I am really beginning to question Ian Brown’s validity and objective in this whole sorry saga. I’m sorry if my comments sound unpleasant, but I can only judge from what I read, most importantly, what I see as a reluctance to answer his detractors. I have yet to hear a response from IB.

      Although not a professional photographer, as a producer I am heavily involved in the creative sector in Europe, and I can tell you that this sorry episode is on the lips of many.

      A single page response by the organisation really does little to appease this highly motivated bunch. Ultimately, this debacle reflects very badly on the Banff Centre administration, who apart from a single half-baked page response, appear to have washed their hands of the situation.

      I would say that there is a fine line between critique and insult, and Ian Brown’s comments have insulted many, but so far has not come forward to answer his detractors, but has happily used this competition to further his own position. However, his new found fame may not be a wholly positive one.

  7. RJ says:

    Hi John, frankly I think this whole thing is a bit of a storm in a teacup.

    You say:

    “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.”

    Well that’s easily corrected – check out their websites and then offer an opinion on their work.

    Ian Brown, in his article says,

    “Our jury gazed upon any number of beautiful images: astonishing pictures of the aurora borealis, climbers in Peru, mountains in China, of bears and bobcats and birds both here and abroad. We saw technically brilliant photographs, superbly (or, more often, overly) Photoshopped. But none of them managed to tell the simplest of stories.
    A story is a cohesive account of events in which something is at stake – a beginning, middle and end tied together with characters, scenes and details (long shots, mid-shots, closeups) that lead to a climax and resolution (or not).
    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.”

    Personally, I do not find that particularly offensive – I actually think it’s quite reasonable as I can imagine myself doing something similar – as I’m sure anyone who has ever looked at the results of photography competitions also has.

    For me photography competitions have always had the aura of a lottery about them – perhaps that’s why I care little for them.

    Should anyone be concerned about anything going on in Canada, this may be more worthwhile:

    Watch video here:

    The RCMP officers involved are currently on trial for perjury.

    What is of particular concern to me regarding the incident is that although RCMP officers are required to have CPR certificates not one performed CPR on Mr

    The evidence challenging the RCMP account would not have existed had it not been for the wit of a fellow traveler – photography at its best and most purposeful.

    • Thanks RJ. Yes in many ways it is a storm in a teacup. But its one thoroughly stirred by the judges – it was a simple task to judge and be done with it. But I don’t like to see slightly dubious stuff like this going unchallenged. It’s bad enough with the rights-grabs that masquerade as photo competitions without this kind of ‘competition’ where the fees are taken and then no award made. That’s just unacceptable.

      I think we can agree to disagree on the what the judges were tasked with doing, and for which entrants paid a fee and had an expectation that an award would be made on the basis of. Henry Iddon’s comments in my original post clearly show that what was outlined by the rules as being required of entrants and which appears to have been ignored by the judges:

      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.

      All of that aside, what I find unacceptable is the public denigration of entrants in Brown’s paper. Click bait to please advertisers.

      If the judges want to give me $10 I’ll happily pass comment on their work.

  8. Henry Iddon says:

    Some interesting thoughts RJ.

    It may well be a storm in tea cup, but a storm all the same.

    Yes I did enter some work. To be honest I didn’t expect to win, partly because the series entered (which was sequenced across a colour pallet because it wasn’t telling a linear ‘story’) was made up of images with a strong narrative and emotional impact. They oppose the standard beauty aesthetic of much landscape photography, and tell a somewhat harsher truth about aspects of the upland environment. It was also shot on large format – 5×4 negative- in areas and at times of day that required multi day trips into the mountains in all seasons. This on the back of a huge amount of research. So the whole process was extremely considered, indeed there is statement of nearly 1000 words to accompany the work – complete with bibliography.

    As someone with an MA in photography – awarded in 1999 when there were very few courses to that level in the UK, and having exhibited reasonably widely, been a visiting lecturer at Universities and presented papers at academic photography conferences I do find Ian Brown’s comments offensive. They were aimed at the broad photography community and at those individuals who entered the awards – i.e me. He assumed those entering don’t know a great deal and that he is well informed.

    Within the right context I’m all for a good debate on the merits of mine and others work but given the fact that, as you say, he isn’t the ‘go to guy’ in Canada for comments on photography then his soap boxing in public appear all the more arrogant.

    Obviously by posting using my name people are at liberty to verify my comments.

    I await his reasoning.

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