I recently found out that two of my images from Colombia had placed first and second in a photo competition. That was certainly gratifying but the greater value came from thinking more deeply about the commentary for each image - both my own and that of the judge - and about what I found important in each scene.
The images are very different. One, the street scene in Medellin, is what I would call a "story" image. The scene caught my eye, I found elements within it striking, and felt compelled to photograph it. The street was busy, I was with a group of people, and there was little time to take the shot. The other, a cathedral rooftop in Bogota, is a "beauty" shot. I'd looked at this scene many times from my hotel room. I'd taken other shots on other days when the light was different. I'd spent time thinking about the architecture, the beauty of the building, the challenge that is Colombia, so I knew this scene. When the light was right I carefully took the shot - a premeditated one, if you like. And very different from the one quickly taken on the street. But I wouldn't have thought much more about it had I not been asked to provide a commentary for each image.
My commentary: "This picture was taken in Medellin, the morning we were walking around the shopping district. As we crossed the intersection to walk down the street I saw this man sitting there and felt compelled to capture him. There were several things that drew me to the scene: (1) The fact that the cart was empty. Was he waiting for a load of something to be delivered, had it just been taken, what was it? (2) The cart itself: homemade, sturdy, made of found materials, looked like it could carry a load; multipurpose, indicative to me of the industriousness and versatility of the Colombian people. (3) His physicality. He looked in shape, somewhat muscular, with a face that looked as though it had seen a lot, yet his pose was calm and purposeful; a worker, not a vagrant. (4) The background. The blue colour caught my eye, and it toned with the colour of his jeans. The graffiti was simply a part of Colombia, being everywhere."
Judge's Comments: "Right away, the composition of: blue wall, man, and trolley, captured my attention. Further in, the story between these three elements grabbed my curiosity. Inevitably, the expression and posture of the man drew me into this photo. His intent glance at what he must be observing, where he came from, and where he'll go opens an entire story beyond this single moment the photographer was able to take. The fluidity of this process has me fixated amongst the many beautiful photos taken for this contest."
Looking back at that moment I'm sure I wasn't consciously aware of all those elements that caught my attention. Many, I believe, were coming to me in a variety of ways. Street photography is fast, it has to be. And I don't know that it's possible to be aware of all the reasons a shot feels compelling at the time you take it. But the more we do it the better we get. I think it must become a more intuitive, semi-automatic process, drawing on practice - a way of looking, that gets better with time. And I hadn't thought about this - and I think it deserves more thought - until I was asked to explain what drew me to that scene and that particular moment.
My commentary: "The cathedral rooftop in Bogota was taken from the window of my hotel. It was the beauty of the architecture that got me on that one, combined with the lovely colour of the building in the perfect late afternoon light. The dark brooding clouds in the background seemed an ideal backdrop for the complexity and darkness of Colombia, and for me added a lot to the scene."
Judge's comments: "The depth and detail of this photo stopped me in my tracks to take in the grandeur of this church, with its graceful architecture and weighty presence. You can almost feel the sun hitting your back and wind carrying the storm away."
This image was a "conscious" one, fully thought through and carefully put together. Very different from what was going on in the creation of the Medellin street scene. I want to understand more about the unconscious, intuitive aspect of image making, about how the eye sees and the brain processes. I look a lot, and I believe I see a lot, but it's clearly more complex than that and I want to know more.