Confessions of a Photo Awards Juror: “In the End, I Could Only Go With the Portfolio That Drew Me in the Most.”

From "Behind the Curtain." Photograph by Ula Wiznerowicz.

CDS Publishing and Awards Director Alexa Dilworth describes what drew her attention as she made her way through hundreds of portfolios submitted for the 2012 Daylight Photo Awards, and what distinguished the body of work she ultimately chose:

I was honored when Taj Forer and Michael Itkoff asked me to be a juror for this year’s Daylight Photo Awards. While there is one overall winner, each guest judge—this year, there were four others, David Bram (Fraction), James Estrin (New York Times), Paul Moakley (TIME), Jessie Wender (The New Yorker)—makes a “juror’s pick.”

The quality of the entries more than met my expectations. In fact, as I continued to look at them, I found the idea of choosing one photographer’s work more and more daunting, as there were so many well-conceived and rendered portfolios, so many brilliantly distinct and meaningful projects.

When I had finally winnowed down my selection to the two handfuls of portfolios that continued to draw me back for one more look, it was truly difficult. Among the bodies of photographs I admired the most (among others!) were Pavel Maria Smejkal’s powerful refiguring of iconic photographs in Fatescapes, which call on us to remember and re-envision both the images and events that he “conjures up” in a new way [Moakley’s juror’s pick]; Tom Johnson’s beautifully constructed portraits, of both homes and people, in the Lakewood subdivision (“Tomorrow’s City Today”) in Los Angeles County where he grew up and now lives; Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s vivid portrayal of Fort McKay, an isolated outpost in northern Alberta, where native peoples confront the complexities, and serious complications, of “partnering” with corporations on shared industrial interests [overall award winner]; Marcus Reichmann’s intimate, subtly unfolding view of a young family making a new life on a dilapidated farm in eastern Germany, in a region that is losing most of its young and educated people to cities; Dina Kantor’s incisive and poignant exploration of the former Kansas mining town of Treece, an EPA-designated Superfund site where the last 140 residents continue to tenuously hang on after the government-funded relocation program has packed up; Eugenijus Barzdzius’s wonderfully charming photographs of the “daily duties of Benedictine monks living in a closed community, their devotion to spiritual life and work for self sustenance”; Francesca Masarié’s promising and deeply cinematic representation of her travels by train, in particular, the Trans-Siberian Railway; Amanda Boe’s tender, respectful, and austerely lovely exploration of western South Dakota as influenced by her brother’s world view; Laura Noel’s surprising, often gorgeous, sometimes outright funny, portraits of pages from withdrawn library books; and finally, Mu Ge’s journey along the Yangtze River in Going Home was especially affecting—a truly magical evocation of his experience of change, of moving between the present and the past, of a singular way of seeing [Estrin and Wender’s juror’s pick]. [Bram’s juror’s pick was Jess Dugan‘s series Every Breath We Drew.]

In the end, I could only go with the portfolio that drew me in the most, that compelled me to consider it the longest, with utmost attention and feeling: Ula Wiznerowicz’s Behind the Curtain [slideshow below]. Below is the juror’s statement I wrote for Michael and Taj for their use in announcing the 2012 Daylight Photo Awards winner and jurors’ picks:

“Ula Wiznerowicz’s photographs in Behind the Curtain come together in the way a collection of short stories might, stories woven together to tell a larger story both elusive and straight-up sad and difficult. Ula went back to the place she grew up, Palmowo, Poland, to photograph place, people, and problems—specifically, men and women struggling with alcoholism, either themselves or collaterally. And she was also looking at, thinking about, her own past. As she says, ‘I know all of the people in my pictures, their wives, children, the interiors of their homes, and the views from their windows.’ This understanding is manifest in her pictures. Rather than put a frame around public, more predictably dramatic, portrayals of her subject, she shares with us a private view, an atmosphere, a way of being that she both reveals and creates. The formalism of the photographs plays both against and with the tumult, resignation, and loneliness of these very particular lives lived out in a quiet, slowly disappearing community. I found myself revisiting this world behind curtains over and over. The quotes that accompany the photographs—as spare yet revealing as the images—drew me further into these rooms where people sit, wait, sleep.”

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