by Scott Strazzante
Staff Photographer
Chicago Tribune


It was just four short years ago on a drizzly February Friday that I was privileged to be sitting in Gannett Hall at the University of Missouri watching as my portfolio bested 124 others giving me the honor of being named 2000 National Newspaper Photographer of the Year.

My 2000 entry consisted entirely of photos made with film cameras within 30 miles of my newspaper’s office in Joliet, Illinois. In comparison my 100% digital portfolio this year was comprised of photos shot in Chicago, Long Beach, San Francisco, Aspen, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Greece, all within a mere 6000 miles of the Tribune Tower.

That radical change in my career and other photojournalism-related issues were on my mind as I returned this year to that same hallowed hall to watch as 4 judges decided what images, stories and portfolios would be called best of 2004.

As I sat watching the pixels fly by, I couldn’t help but ponder some of the other changes that have happened since that late winter day in 2001. Of course, the most obvious and far-reaching ones occurred in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That event changed the face of photojournalism forever. Not only did it change the focus of our daily work but it also changed the conditions in which we work under. These facts were very evident in the newspaper division news picture story category. The majority of the entries were international, with the bulk of those being from Haiti and Iraq. While most of the domestic stories entered were hurricane coverage. The reportage from Haiti was incredible. There were at least a dozen essays on the turmoil from early 2004 and all gave a peek at the courage and resolve shown by the war photographers working in our profession. Most of the Iraq stories centered more on the daily life of the GIs overseas. This, I assume, was a result of the embedding process and the incredible danger that a photographer on their own must encounter while working in that arena. Despite the wealth of stories from Haiti and Iraq, first place in the category went to Andrea Bruce Woodall of the Washington Post. Her piece on the Afghanistan elections was both beautiful and content-rich.

Another category, I was anxious to watch was the judging of the Newspaper Photographer of the Year. This year’s judges- Peggy Peattie, staff photographer, San Diego Tribune; Tim Rasmussen, DOP, South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Stephan Savoia, Associated Press national staff photographer and Jose Luis Villegas, staff photographer, Sacramento Bee- had the overwhelming task of sorting through 112 portfolios, comprising over 3700 images, and then deciding which was the best. I was curious to see if the international work would carry more weight than the domestic or if a combination of the two would prove to be the winning combination.

© Photo by Scott Strazzante February 25, 2005
POYi judging at University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri
Dallas Morning News' Smiley Pool (right) and Chicago Tribune's Alex Garcia jokingly salute POYi judge Peggey Peattie as she arrives at Gannett Hall for the final day of judging in the newspaper division

I sat next to Dallas Morning News photographer Smiley Pool for the entire 10 hours that it took for the category to be judged. Smiley and I had a running conversation, in whispered tones, throughout the day about the state of photojournalism and the judging process in general. Our first conclusion was that contests suck, unless you win. Every set of judges comes in with a different set of life experiences, artistic sensibilities and professional standards. If you had ten sets of qualified professionals judging the same group of photos, I would guess that there would be a small core of consistent winning images, about 25%, that would be chosen by almost all the groups. The other 75% of the awards would vary wildly.

Another variable is the judging criteria. Are the judges picking the best of the year or do they use some sort of standard to compare the entries to and then decide whether or not to award winners in a certain category? The first two years of judging at the NPPA’s BOP contest, no awards were given in the Sports Portfolio category. This year in POYi, only two awards of excellence were awarded in One Week’s Work. Is that right? I say no. I tend to lean towards awarding at least 1st through 3rd places in every category. Besides awarding the best of a year, I believe major photo contests are a valuable historical document. They give insight into the important events and issues of the year and show the prevailing styles that are employed by those deemed most successful.

© Photo by Scott Strazzante February 25, 2005
POYi judging at University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri
Tim Rasmussen, Peggy Peattie, Stephan Savoia and Jose Luis Villegas scour the final portfolios on the Newspaper Photographer of the Year category.

As for the portfolio entries, almost all, including the winning ones, could have used a bit more editing. A good example was LA Times’ Rick Loomis’ entry that ended up placing 3rd in the portfolio category. (I’m not trying to pick on my dear friend Rick, because my portfolio suffered from a lack of editing, too, but unlike Rick’s, it wasn’t good enough to overcome it’s flaws.) Loomis’ images ranged from pretty good to outstanding. He was in the thick of battle in Iraq and came back not only in one piece but with a handful of emotionally gripping images that made you feel like you were right there with the Marines as they fought for their lives in Fallujah. His work in Haiti and the Middle East was just as good. Loomis even included a photo from one of Florida’s hurricanes. So why did this portfolio only merit a 3rd? Too many photos. Loomis entered the maximum 50 images that the rules allowed. In fact, I think, Loomis had enough great photos this past year to have two award-winning portfolios.

© Photo by Scott Strazzante February 25, 2005
POYi judging at University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri
An image by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times is viewed during the Newspaper News Picture Story Category.

So, my advice is, next year when you sit down to access your work, have a couple people sit with you and have an honest conversation about the work. It’s even more helpful if those helpers don’t work at your paper. Sometimes, your fellow editors and photographers are too close to the work and are swayed by how it ran in the paper and not whether it can stand alone as it enjoys it’s 1 second in the spotlight during the contest judging. If you decide to enter a portfolio, remember less is more. Besides the editing, sequencing and quality summaries and captions are just as important. The portfolio judging process is based on picking apart the redundancies and singling out the poor images in a body of work. The fewer photos in your portfolio that can be criticized, the better off you’ll be.

Well as another contest season comes to a close, I, for one, am glad that I made the pilgrimage to Columbia, Missouri. Looking at the best of the best has once again reconfirmed why I love this job. Now it’s time to go out and make those photos that next year’s bleary-eyed POYi judges will scrutinize and, hopefully, with a little luck, choose as the best.


Scott Strazzante


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