Judging Photography – a humanistic approach

Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the last century, proposed that there are three core conditions for a successful, growth-promoting relationship. Can they apply to appraising photography with a camera club audience?

2010_365341 - StreamingMy motivation when appraising photographs is not to stand in judgement but to take the role of a coach, to help photographers to develop, to grow and to improve through constructive appraisal; hence my dislike of the term ‘judging’.

Rogers’ Core Conditions can be applied in any growth-promoting situation, not limited to Rogerian counselling or therapy. They form the basis for good professional coaching relationships in sport and business. Why not when judging photography in camera clubs?

These key ideas from humanistic psychology form the core qualities that I teach as part of my one and two-day courses on photography judging and apppraisal  for the SCPF and SxPF. Let’s consider them one by one:

Congruence: To be congruent means to be genuine or real, to present myself with no ‘professional’ façade. In making a comment about an image, therefore, I have to be aware of the feelings a picture evokes for ME and to express those feelings. This could cause difficulties, because many people believe that judges should be objective. Total objectivity, of course, would require me to turn off this human part of myself, so we might as well have a machine do our judging – something I’ve often referred to as ‘judging by numbers’.

Congruence requires subjectivity. It means that when I am expressing personal feelings, which may include ‘I don’t like this image, because …’ I should make it very clear that it is ‘I’ who has this feeling about the image, and that I totally respect the photographer. This is where the second condition comes in.

Respect: Rogers called this condition ‘unconditional positive regard‘. I am appraising the photograph, not the photographer, and I am clear in my mind that I respect the photographer totally no matter the quality of the image (as I perceive it).  I must also find something good and encouraging to say about every image – preferably in an optimum ratio of 3:1; destructive criticism has no place in any situation. If am not respectful then I cannot apply the final condition.

Empathy: The third condition is perhaps the most difficult. Empathy means to sense accurately the meanings, intentions and feelings of the other person – the photographer in our case. Photographically it means that I should seek to understand the photographer’s intent or the ‘expressive quality’ in the image, even if I would not have made that image myself.

Trying to ‘get inside the head of the photographer’ is fraught with danger, particularly if I use language that is categorical. This is because I believe that we photographers often have no intent at the moment of releasing the shutter; we apply meanings afterwards. It is risky too, for I might get it wrong. If I do, then congruence helps me because I have expressed my response to the image using ‘I’ language, rather than hiding behind a projection. If I get it right, the photographer almost always thanks me for my perception, for people love to feel heard and understood.

Empathy is also about understanding how the photographer might be feeling, here and now, as her image comes up for me to appraise. So I talk to everyone in the audience as though I am speaking one to one – I try to ‘be with’ them.

In Conclusion

I contend that someone with no photography knowledge at all, someone who is able to articulate what they like or don’t like about a picture in this ‘person-centred’ way, could give an appraisal that we would all be delighted by.

In short, I can say anything provided I say it in the ‘right’ way. Communication is everything.

… Ken Scott