What Makes for Compelling Images? Reflections from the Pictures of the Year Contest

This past week I was a judge for the Pictures of the Year International contest at the University of Missouri, where we sat in a room for 12 hours a day, for four days, viewing over 18,000 images from thousands of photographers across the globe. Per contest coordinator Rick Shaw’s guidelines for judging, we viewed each image three times, in order to give every image the benefit of the doubt. (So it was more like 54,000 viewings). At one point it felt like I was in the “Star Gate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey as we hurtled through images from all over time and space, inundated with light, color and scenes of intensity from around the globe, filled with awe.

I was absolutely delighted to fulfill a professional milestone, alongside Elizabeth Krist, Bruce Strong, and Moe Doiron. Our job was to evaluate the Reportage multiple pictures categories on our way to choosing the Photographer of the Year. I had been to a POY judging – but only as a participant. This time, I was out of the armchair and into the hot seat – especially because our comments were at times recorded on Facebook Live.

As someone who has written about, taught and presented on effective visual communication, it was also a great opportunity for me to gain further insights into the urgent question that I often think about as a visual creator helping clients reach audiences.

What makes for compelling images?  

What images not only win contests, but also break through the visual noise and clutter to make a viewer stop, linger and look?

So as our group propelled ourselves through the images, I tried to answer this question. I paid attention to what was going through my mind (and gut) as I experienced the multitude of amazing images. It was not easy. We made split-second decisions that were often visceral.

I concluded that it came down to four criteria. They reflect image perception from the eye, to the mind and ultimately and most importantly, to the heart.


1. Beautiful

When your eyes are inundated with images, beauty always makes you stop and fill with awe – an underlying character of many viral images. So in this case, it became a bare minimum to move forward with an image.

Images had to combine light, mood, emotion and composition in a visual coherence that were just plain beautiful. If it was color, it had to be beautiful color – not necessarily bright and beautiful, as it could be high key and muted, or even dark and brooding. It just had to be done skillfully to heighten an aesthetic.

We had long discussions about post-production and color treatments, etc. As a photojournalism contest, it’s generally frowned upon for ethics reasons. If it supported the content, I was all in favor of it. If it became a look for the sake of a look, then I would argue against it. The winning portfolio had a series of images with a post-produced look that I felt was completely unnecessary. But I voted for it anyway on the strength of the content.

I will say that post-produced images are more likely to be given a second look, as you first experience the style and what it has to say, and then dig deeper into the image itself. In that pause, there is likely an opportunity.


2. Storytelling

Storytelling creates motion between images – a narrative thread that engages a viewer. We started with overviews of essays, where we could experience their overall context. This is where editing really became key.

Visual variety, identifiable faces or characters to put a face on an issue – all of these things help when viewing a body of images. Photographs shot at a distance were not quick reads and were a bit of a challenge to appreciate when viewed as a grid. Nonetheless, we lingered on them to give every entry its due.

When there is a push-and-pull between images shot at different distances and focal lengths, it produces a narrative motion that propels a viewer forward through a set of images. You can see the flow and it enhances a story. (This translates to sequencing for videos as well)

So it was very easy to quickly scan a grid of 12 or 40 images to tell whether there was a breakdown in the story in the form of repetitive or weak images.  The flow was also interrupted when a photographer put together two images that were just too similar to each other, but were likely separate in his/her own mind.

Because we all have short attention spans as humans, you don’t want any of these things to distract from the motion or sequencing of a narrative.

If images are all photographed in a similar manner that can work too, as long as the viewer is brought to an unexpected place by the repetition and uniformity. But it’s a delicate dance to make sure images are not redundant to the point that you lose interest.


3. Engaging

Images had to engage the mind. For this, a cognitive reaction of, “What’s this?” had to happen. New and fresh always get more attention in visual communication.

If an image makes you ask questions, all the better, but not to the extent that you walk away without enough information to understand what you just saw.  Then it’s just an irritation to your cognitive curiosity and the image gets dropped like a rock.

Rodeos or boot camps or any number of clichés got passed over quickly, unless they were exceptionally and uniquely presented. We’ve seen it. No surprise.

Engaging stories are ones that usually relevant to the cultural conversation at large – images that speak to ideas, thoughts and emotions that are swirling in our world.

For example, we all admitted to leaning forward in our chairs looking for picture stories that spoke to some of the bigger news stories from last year, such as Standing Rock or the Fidel Castro funeral.

For the stories about drug violence in the Philippines, we saw many photographers’ work. Which won? The story with contextual scenes that showed how the deaths intruded on daily life. Those were more engaging. We wondered what it would be like to have to deal with that on a day-to-day basis.

Another takeaway was that it’s important to relate any story back to shared human experience, to stir a connection (see below).


4. Emotional

Perhaps most obviously, emotion was the rule. It was the ultimate arbiter, how images made us feel, after all was said and done.

As a photojournalist at my news organizations, I always keyed on the emotion of a story in the limited time I had. You have to find the heart of a story.

But there’s a very important caveat that I think eludes a lot of people.

Emotions are only valuable to the extent that it makes the viewer care.

The images had to spur compassion, fun, anger, injustice, inspiration etc. Yes, it’s great if the subjects are emotional in the frame, but capturing emotion was not enough. As viewers we had to care about the subject to care about their emotion. Otherwise there is a disconnect. We have to know enough about the story and the context to be able to relate

Foreign ceremonies, unusual events, strange traditions, fetishes, or ethnic group profiles can all be interesting, visual and even emotional. But does it really matter to a viewer except in an anthropological – external observer kind of way?


As busy humans with short attention spans, we need to feel the urgency of caring, now.

That’s the challenge of any contest – to thread a narrative through beautiful and engaging images that make jurors care.

But that goes for just about all visual communication, and the everyday jurors who make split-second decisions that can determine your future.




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