Why entering Awards is good for the Soul

This blog post is about my personal growth as an artist though entering the NZIPP photography awards.  If you just want to skip past the journey and get to the nuggets gleaned feel free to just skip to the last chapter…but that misses the point.  The journey is the point in anything worth doing. (will take you about 5 minutes to read)

I first entered the Iris Awards in 2009.  I was a single mum with a camera.  The bane of “real” photographers existence and a “threat” to the industry.  I was a new crop of photographer that fell in love with photographing their children had a camera and thought…oh maybe I can earn some money with this.  I didn’t know how to use it properly.  In fact,  I think I was still mostly on automatic settings.  I had just gotten qualified as a professional photographer by submitting my best 10 images out of about 10000 I had taken.  I felt like a fraud.  I was.  I could officially call myself a professional photographer but I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground.  I was scared because ultimately I knew in my heart that despite this shady beginning I was born to shoot. I knew only that my weaknesses as a shooter were infinite and that if I was serious I needed to study my ass off.  Slight problem though was that as a single mum running a farm, weekend cafe, and working at the hospital as a nurse I couldn’t drop everything and go back to school.  So I had to take whatever was available.  

Enter…the Iris Awards.  Rob Drissen was the head of New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography in Wellington and he encouraged me to go up and see them and enter them and go to conference.  I rubbed together my pennies.  Shipped my son off to his fathers and went.  I figured it would be a weekend intensive of learning and if I could see what an award winning image looked like I would learn what makes an image good.  I brought my laptop and sat in the back and took notes on the characteristics of the ones that won.   I was wide eyed at what was created.  Blown away by what I was seeing.  One of the judges saw me taking notes and gave me shit about it in a typical jocular fashion.  But I was a woman clinging to a raft lost at sea.  

The comments that were dripping out of the judges mouths were like sacred water to my parched throat. I had checked out every book from the library on photography and paged through them but this was live and in person learning. I could even talk to the authors of the pieces and find out what inspired them.  Ask them how they lit something or what was challenging about making that piece.  I was a fan girl and I was self conscious about not fitting in. Hardly knowing anyone and being a “fraud”.   But I didn’t care.  I wanted more than anything to be a photographer so I was willing to deal with the humiliation of being seen as having crap work so that I could learn.  I put 4 images in that year.  Three tanked as expected but one got a solid bronze.  I was walking on air after that.  I could now call myself an award winning photographer and you better bet I would be emblazoning that shit everywhere.

I went back year after year.  Started growing a friendship base of people that I would see once a year.  I started winning more consistently.  Got my masters.  My bar to masters.  My bar to masters again.  But the elusive Gold was still just out of reach.  I need to score 90 or above on one image to become a Fellow of the industry.  Oh the learning was so deep.  The rabbit hole never ending and I loved the free fall into the depths.   Each years entries saw me grow as a professional.  The deadline of having to have them submitted pushed me to ship.  To finish and polish the images.  When some did worse than I hoped they would do I would get feedback from the judges and go home the next year and pound away at that problem.

I was a dog with a bone.  And the truth of the matter is that when it came down to it my art was a solid reflection of myself and what was missing in my art to bring it to that next level was simply my biggest weakness as a human in artistic form.  For me it was completing and finishing.  Of paying deep attention to the details. Of moving past…”eh..that will do” to “I am going to make this as perfect as I possibly can.”  It was next level shit and until I passed that level…well…I wasn’t really growing as a human either.

When I first started at the awards it was about using it as a means of stroking my ego. Of taking my insecurities and showing myself that I could start to play with the big boys.  I gave myself room to fail and stand up and do it again.  There was that much self compassion at least, but as I grew in the awards it became so much more than that.  It became about mastering craft.  I made it to Master Qualification on raw talent and my natural level of focus.  To make it to Fellow means pushing myself well past my artistic boundaries and natural talents and diving deep and pushing myself in ways that scare me.  I was shit scared of anything but natural light.  I didn’t understand the art of photoshop.  I was a hack at best at both.  My work was described to me by my mentors as “unfinished”  I felt like I had a nubbly block of broken 8 pack crayons and the artists I looked up to had the farking mint condition 64 pack with the sharpener in back.  What I learned is that they had packs and packs of nubbly 8 packs that they had gone through and had built up with years of practice to that 64 pack.  You just can’t rush that level.  Talent will take you only so far and then the farking grunt work has to kick in.  Otherwise you are simply a dilettante.

So weaknesses faced this year…Lighting, Photoshop, Directing, paying attention to the details.  

Learning artificial lighting.  

Last year I was blessed with winning the Kingsize scholarship.  As I was self taught this was my biggest area of weakness.  Something I hid from and made excuses not to address.  “Natural light is so much cleaner and natural…blah blah blah.”  I was just shit scared of looking like a dick in front of others as I fumbled with equipment that wouldn’t work and made people look like bad 1980’s glamour shots.   So the scholarship was my ticket out of the Natural light limbo. For three months I would work three days in Wellington and then fly up to Auckland and use their gear and push myself harder than I have ever pushed myself.  Luke White taught me how to properly sync a flash, use high end lighting gear and properly modify light. I was shit scared and excited in equal measure.  I was sure I was going to break expensive stuff.  There was one day I was  inspired by Paolo Roversi,  I wanted to try and use constant lighting.  I was given a $60K light to play with and the farking head fell off the front of it. I caught it and sent my assistant down to get someone to help me put it back together why I held it half on and half off like a spinal injury victim. Once we sorted it I swear I had to change my underwear.  Many of my experiments failed completely…so I experimented more.  It was a bit like Edison I figured out a 1000 ways not to do something until I had a happy accident.

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Photoshop.

Photoshop was a bit like that too. Online tutorials and mentors helped me beyond measure. Craig Thompson my partner loves the stuff and dove in deeper than I ever did.  He learned tricks and techniques that made my head spin and really pushed things to the next level and showed me what was possible in retouching.   He also wouldn’t accept me doing less than perfect.  He pushed me to next level post production. Then I went to Richard Woods courses (Note to anyone struggling with a photoshop challenge get to one of Richard Wood’s photoshop courses…You’re welcome. ) I still feel like a babe in the woods sometimes.  And photoshop really pushed my attention to detail buttons hard!!!

 

directing and Attention to Detail.

On set. Casting.  Directing.  Lighting.  Shooting. Compositing.  Doing stupid stuff on set like forgetting to photograph the background with no one in it because you have gotten so excited with the shooting when you are planning on compositing later…yeah I can’t count the number of times I have done this.  Still working on it.   

Posing – If you get a chance work with Amanda Betts.  She is awesome and helps you think about how to really work with a model’s body.  

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Casting = herding cats.    I did several shoots using casts of over 12 people this year.  That stuff is hard.  From finding the right people, communicating with them, posing them to tell the story that is in your head but not yet manifesting in your camera,  bringing the right amount of equipment to light them…feed them all.  Logistics have never been my strong suit…they are now.  This is thanks to the awards. I wouldn’t have pushed myself this hard as an artist without them.   Now I have.  Now I have new skills.   Where improvisation and winging it was the way I used to operate and is still my go to. I learned that for the next level stuff I needed next level organizational skills.  This does NOT come naturally to me by any stretch.  But as Marie Forleo says “Everything is Figuroutable”

 

Sweet Relief.

After a month of up to 2am working sessions and 7-8am starts i finally with a few hours to spare submitted this years entries to the Iris Awards.   I hope that one will make it to Gold.  All year I had a little bit of paper pinned to my computer screen with the judging qualities of a gold.

“Innovative, superior communication, promoting an emotional response, and has enduring quality”  If I didn’t feel like an image could have a shot at this I would drop it like a hot potato and try and work on those that felt they might have a chance.

For 7 years I have worked on my craft to reach that gold level. If I have to walk up on that stage and get another bar to Masters I will probably faceplant in my plate at the Gala Dinner.  I don’t know if this is the year.  I can always hope and I have wrung my guts out giving it my absolute best crack. If it isn’t I will dig back in and try again next year. And the year after.  And the year after that.  Even if it means I have row of gold bars that wrap all the way around my neck I will wear it as a testament of dedication to craft. But I really really would love to change the fucker in for a yellow ribbon. I want to be doing next level stuff.  (P.S. If i do get my fellow ribbon expect one hell of a ridiculous happy dance on stage and lord help who ever is giving it to me.)  

The truth of the matter is I live for this each year. The deadline.  The camaraderie of working on an image and chatting with colleagues about it virtually until the wee hours of the night.   Growing together as artists.  This is what awards give you the opportunity to do. I would not be the artist I am today if it wasn’t for the Iris awards and the camaraderie of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography Community.

 

My thoughts to Other Artists

So what have I gleaned from all this that I want to share with other artists.  Don’t be a suffering artist working in isolation.  Collaboration is the key.  Push your boundaries.  Use deadlines to your advantage.  Don’t be afraid to fail. And fail publicly if need be for your craft.  Know that you are really onto something when the drive to win is no longer about stroking your ego but only about perfecting your craft…this comes in time. Fail.  Fail again.  Then fail some more.  Do shit that scares you. Then do more of it until it becomes comfortable and then do scarier shit. This is the vanguard of your growth as an artist.  Your comfort zone is your death as an artist. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Your ego will cringe at it initially but it is the only way you will grow. Enter the farking awards or your version of them and do it each year.  It is an easy way to mark your growth as a professional and give you a yearly push to master your craft. Remember that those who are your photography idols sucked in the beginning too.   They didn’t poop golds from birth.  Talent will only get you so far then you have to get properly stuck in and align with your muse and serve her. Because even though the award might have your name on it, to get there you will have masses who have helped you to rise to the level that you are aiming for.  And your work and the lengths that you go to master your craft will be the inspiration that will pull others along as well.  So get over your shit and enter.  Mike drop. Peace out.