“Truly, I was born to be an example of misfortune and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
I can’t believe I am writing this.
But I am.
And, for better or for worse, here are a few thoughts on the New Zealand Honours system, and why I think, for all its flaws, it is a system with a lot going for it.
Why are you writing this, you might well ask, when you aren’t even a member any more, you don’t judge competitions, and you were last seen at Conference in 2010?
Well, I am going to have one last go.
The sandbags are up, the razor wire is laid, and I am wearing my tin helmet. And, perhaps because I no longer have any skin in the game, I can offer my opinions.
Back around 2010, 10 years or so after I gained my Fellowship, I was invited to be part of a working panel to look at PSNZ Honours and ways to make it better.
We came back with a series of recommendations which suggested, amongst others, investigating a system similar to that employed by the NZIPP, with their print judging system, where it is possible to build up points towards a particular level of honours.
We submitted it to the Council, and it immediately sank without trace.
Then it resurfaced a few weeks ago when a member of PSNZ Council made contact with me. He had heard about the report and wanted to pick my brains. Apparently, the idea of earning points towards Honours from competitions has reemerged. What did I think?
Never one to lack an opinion, I gave it. After all, what is the worst that can happen?
So here is what I think.
Three years ago, APS (Australian Photographic Society) invited me to be the keynote speaker at their annual convention in Adelaide. It was at the awards dinner that I realised the bewildering number of ways that it is possible to get Honours in the Western Isles. FIAP, that organisation devoted to keeping the Serbian economy afloat, judging by the number of emails I receive every day), PSA (Photographic Society of America) and the APS ways as well. My brain ached.
In Aotearoa/New Zealand, we have only one way; a portfolio system modelled on that used by the Royal Photographic Society.You submit your portfolio and it makes it.
Or it doesn’t.
The members of the judging panel are senior members of the society. Each must have a Fellowship to be on it. That implies some knowledge of the honours system at least, and hopefully of the medium of photography and its archaeology. Indeed, they are well versed in club photography, a sub-genre of its own.
The question asked of me was what I thought of points from club competitions being able to be used as credits towards Honours. Did I think that was a good idea?
No. Absolutely not. For two reasons.
We have all entered work in one competition to gain an Honours, and then be rejected entirely in another. That speaks of inconsistency in standards across the country. The same with the National. One year it does well. Another year not well at all. And the difference is?
Secondly, I have witnessed some truly awful judgings when I have been to club nights (not a thing I do much any more). I watched one judge reject flower pictures because they didn’t like flower pictures. Really? Are you for real? All that did was make the judge’s biases and ignorance clearly evident. Another judge rejected sunsets out of hand and panned any picture where the subject was not placed on a third, ignoring the emotion and power in the image. Don’t start me. O wait, I have…
I know the Judge Accreditation Panel have been running excellent workshops to upskill the pool of judges available to clubs. By the few accounts I receive, they have achieved a lot. Well done. But this and always will be a work in progress, which will take time to flow through to the grassroots of club photography.
In the meantime, I am going to go with the current system as it is. It is simple, straightforward and it works. Mostly.
It seems to me that both LPSNZ and FPSNZ are relatively easy to work out in terms of what is being sought. ‘L’ submissions are really A grade images in a broad range of genres. The dirty secret here is that LPSNZ was brought in to encourage PSNZ membership.
The FPSNZ submission is for a body of work which breaks new ground. 18 tightly-themed images on a particular topic. A PhD thesis in a sense.
I think that it is APSNZ where the most confusion reigns. Where does it sit in terms of its thematic placement? Is it more general, like an L or tightly-themed, like an F?
One answer might be for the board to produce a report annually, giving feedback to the PSNZ community on what has worked and what has not. NZQA moderators do that for NCEA Art. Well, they used to. The report would show one set which didn’t make it, one which did ( just) and one which excelled. Thus nine reports in all. These could be published on the PSNZ website for download and perusal. Submitters would have to sign a disclaimer giving the Board permission to choose sets for the annual report.
Over time, the bank of reports would make it easier for potential submitters to make more informed decisions when putting their sets together, and to make it easier to decide for themselves where their own work measured in terms of the standard and what the standard actually required.
Other than that, I cannot think what else might be done to improve an honours system which, by and large, works.
The header image for the post is from my own F set, which made it through on my first attempt. I became fascinated by Heisenberg’s Principle of uncertainty, the idea that observation of an event changes both observer and observed. I spent a year exploring this through street photography on the bar scene in Christchurch, and putting into practice techniques I had learned from a Magnum photographer (David Hurn, if you want to know). I never thought of submitting it until I was persuaded to do so sometime later. At the time the Chairman of the Board was the wonderful Matheson Beaumont.
A few years later I was (briefly) on the Board myself. An F set came up, and all bar me rejected it. I went in to bat for this set, pointing out its links to Dada and Surrealism. I probably foamed at the mouth and got a bit fierce. The Board listened, and on the second vote, the set made it. As it should have.
Fast forward 10 years. I was having a drink at Convention with the person whose set it was, telling him what had happened. He burst out laughing.
“You know,” he replied, “I was on the Board when your set came up. The same thing happened. It was Matheson who got you through. We had no idea what to make of your work and rejected it at first. Then Matheson (who was phenomenally well-read-Ed.) gave us hell and told us that we were missing just how cutting-edge your set was. He was the reason you got through.”
What goes around comes around.
Your comments and thoughts are welcome.