Let’s meet up with Stephen Mayes

Stephen Mayes © Woong Jae Shin

Stephen Mayes © Woong Jae Shin

This year, you will chair the Pride Photo Award jury. In 2011 you were a member of the jury. How did you experience the contest two years ago?
 
It was a very positive experience. The thing that impressed me most was that although we didn’t get a huge volume of entries, the quality was really high. I was really delighted by that, because very often in the past I’ve found that specialist competitions like this can attract enthusiasts, but not necessarily the best photographers. What I found at the 2011 Pride Photo Award was that the submissions were not only plainly passionate; they were also of the best photographic quality.
 
From 2004 to 2009 you served as secretary to the World Press Photo awards jury. In 1993 you were chair of the jury. What is it like to be on a jury?
 
It is both empowering and humbling. And it can also be extremely frustrating. It is empowering because it gives me an opportunity to reward work that I feel strongly about. That is obviously very gratifying. It is also humbling, because in the process of choosing winners, you are excluding people who are not winning prizes. Very often you see great work, which people put tremendous effort and intelligence in, and then it doesn’t win an award. The judgment you need in those cases is very delicate. Being a jury member is also frustrating, because you’re only one of five people. And sometimes the other four people don’t see the world the correct way [laughs]. You don’t always get your way. But of course, that’s also the joy of working in a group.
 
What will be your tasks as jury chairman?
 
Well, the number one task is to vote wisely. My second task is to ensure that the jury as a whole is working well. That means keeping an eye on everybody, to make sure that everyone’s voice is being heard. If I see someone struggling with communication – because of language barriers, or because someone is not given enough space – I will step in. Those are the things a good chair should be doing.
 
What is it that you will look for as a jury member? What are your criteria?
 
One of the things I’m very conscious of with this particular award is that it has a blend of artistic, creative and political content. I’m not only looking for a picture that is intelligently put together, I’m also looking for a picture that has a message and informs me about something, a picture that advances our understanding of the subject. So, I will be looking at two things: How good is the picture as a photograph? And what is it telling me?
 
What is the relevance of photography contests and, more specifically, a contest like Pride Photo Award?
 
It has several very important functions. In this specific area – representations around gender and sexuality – I have found in the past that photographers resort very quickly to clichés and stereotypes. These are simple communications that are not very effective for complex issues like this. This competition is very important for me, because it can highlight ways of doing it better. It is something that I feel very passionate about, because we are dealing here with big issues that have a major impact on how people live their lives. The contest is partly about encouraging photographers, and partly about encouraging people through photography to live their lives.
 
Do photo contests have downsides?
 
Yes, they do. The danger is to suggest that the top three pictures are the only good pictures. That is always a challenge. It is really important to recognize that the awards that are given reflect the values of that particular jury. It does not necessarily reflect the value of the photographer. I don’t think bad pictures win: I’ve very rarely seen that. But out of a large number of good pictures, only some can take prizes. It’s not about defining who is a good or a bad photographer.
 
This might be something that is ultimately subjective, but what exactly makes a good photograph?
 
There are several answers to that question. One of them is technique, because when you’re not in control of technique, it becomes difficult to control your subject. But technique on its own is absolutely not enough. I’m very fond of quoting a good friend of mine, Francis Hodgson, who was the head of photography of Sotheby’s in London: a photograph can be of something, but a good photograph is about something. It does not just show you an object or situation, it tells you more than is immediately visible. There are so many elements that go into that: technical, emotional, compositional. A good photograph looks very different every time.
 
When does a good photograph turn into an award-winning photograph?
 
It has to do with the jury process. In a good jury, each member will be learning from the others. It therefore becomes a collective process of educating ourselves about what we see. There have been times I saw pictures I liked, but wouldn’t have given a prize too. That is, until I heard someone talk about it. Suddenly you get an inside revelation, from somebody else’s perception or wisdom. Very often a good photograph becomes an awarded photograph through the work the viewer puts into it. To me, a picture is not a one-way street. It doesn’t just go from the photographer to the viewer. A photograph is an exchange. The viewer puts back into the picture as well.
 
Is there something you would like to pass on to contestants of Pride Photo Award?
 
Yes. Honesty is really a core value here. That means that rather than photographing subjects that seem to fit in the media, rather than photographing a subject you’ve seen before, be honest and photograph subjects you really care about. However personal, however tiny it might seem. The more honest a photographer is, the more interesting their work becomes.
 
Do you come across a lot of ‘dishonest’ photography?
 
I’m afraid I do. So much of what we see in the media is a formula. There are certain ways of representing the world that at this point have become habitual. Many subjects just get repeated and repeated, without any new insights being added. I have to say: social media, and the internet as a whole, is profoundly changing that. The opportunity we all have to publish work and look at work with minimal filters, is really enriching the media process. You can publish by yourself, without a photo editor telling you what is appropriate. Pictures on social media are not often presented as precious objects; they are just presented because they satisfy the curiosity of the poster. I think that is close to the honesty I mentioned before. While social media generally lack a deep intellectual process, if offers something else: a very immediate, free-flowing understanding.
 
Niels van Maanen 

art historian and critic, Amsterdam
 

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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