Win the fight, or keep in flight

Win the fight, or keep in flight

By Sarah Gardner


In journalism, it’s not about the awards. At least it shouldn’t be.

Last weekend a group of my fellow students from the SIU chapter of National Press Photographers Association and I attended the Midwest Photo Summit, a conference held at Columbia College in Chicago. Each year students — and professionals too — huddle around computers pouring through a year’s worth of work, attempting to pick out the best of the best to enter into the Illinois Best of Photojournalism contest. As the deadline approaches we frantically pull everything together, and once the submit button is pressed, we wait.


Thanks to the School of Journalism, our group attended the live judging of the contest in Chicago. Photographers, luggage and camera equipment were packed into a van, and the fun began.

More pictures were taken of fellow photographers that weekend than in the entire semester combined. Every detail of the trip was documented, from the first glimpse of city skyline, to someone’s first taste of great Chicago cuisine.

When the judging started, we gathered in a classroom around a projector seated behind three judges. The judges are professionals currently working in the field either freelance or at a newspaper. Each category was shown in its entirety first, before the eliminations began.

In the first round, only one “in” was required for a photo to survive. My heart beat anxiously as the images flickered on the screen. I was lucky enough to have my photographs make the first cut a few times. However, there is nothing more demoralizing than hearing “out, out, out” for each of the images you submitted as soon as the second round hit.

This is the danger of watching live judging of contests. Instead of discussing each image, and giving constructive criticism for the photographer to learn from, time restraints force judges to give a harsh, one-word rejection. Repeatedly having your photos rejected can lead to a low opinion of your own work. Many artists struggle with this, but if you are not confident in your own portfolio, how do you expect to convince a potential employer you are the perfect candidate for the job?

Students are told, “Take everything they say with a grain of salt; these contests are always so subjective.” I can attest to that statement.

You will never agree with every decision the judges make, and I expected that going into the competition. In fact, sometimes the judges themselves couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion. However, some of the winners made so little sense to me I found myself making faces of disgust from the last row of the darkened classroom.


As the day progressed and my frustration grew, I decided not to put much stock into the contest at all.

I know what I believe makes a great photograph, and as long as I push myself to do that every time I shoot, I should be content.

Photojournalism is not about winning awards. It is not about becoming famous and being recognized for your work. Sometimes that happens, but that should never be the goal.

Photojournalism allows the public to witness the most critical moments in time. Photojournalism has the power to change a viewer’s opinion and in a way, change the world.

A photojournalist whose mindset when she shoots is, “How can I make an image that will win awards in contests?” to me is not a photojournalist at all. The goal should be instead, “How will I tell this story for those who are not here to experience it themselves?”

We have the chance to make a difference in people’s lives. And sometimes we win awards for our accomplishments. But that is not the priority.

On the final day of the conference, after the keynote speeches were given, I had the opportunity to meet one of my biggest influences and role models: John. H. White. White was a photographer for the Chicago Sun Times for many years, and is highly respected in the photojournalism community.

He asked me where I saw myself in five years, and asked me why I liked taking pictures. It was refreshing to be asked questions rather than listen to professionals talk about themselves. It also forced me to reevaluate why I do what I do. After my discussion with him, he reached into his pocket and handed me a small pin with “Keep in flight” on it. This is a saying he has used and has become infamous among photojournalists.

During the past year I have not been photographing as much as I used to. Spending more time working on my second major, and holding the role of Managing Editor cut into the time I found to do what I love.

There isn’t a way for me to truly express how much admiration I have for John. H. White. He made me passionate about my profession in the beginning, and has rekindled the flame in me now.

I am proud to say that SIU students received 14 awards, along with the Student Photographer of the Year title for the second year in a row. When the memories of the contest wane, the most important thing is to keep the passion alive and remember why we do what we do.

Take pride in your accomplishments, let the negativity go, be vigilant and as always, keep in flight.

Sarah Gardner can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter @SarahGardner_DE, or 536-3311 ext. 251.