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Dan Berman and the MPAs: A Chat about Rumors & the Intergrity of the Awards

Image by Marie Matthews, Honorable Mention Performing Arts Category

Dan Berman and the MPAs: A Chat about Rumors & the Intergrity of the Awards by Anna Cox

Recently, the Mobile Photo Awards held their yearly competition and many people waited with baited breath to see the winners in each category. The awards had a record number of participants this year and we were all very very excited when news outlets such as Huffington Post picked it up and published an article about the awards.  According to Huffington Post article about MPAs  The 2013 awards received entries from nearly 1,000 photographers from more than 40 countries. How awesome is that? The mobile community for the most part is a loving creative community that cheers on each and every victory for our growing art form. Publicity for things like the MPAs validates what we are doing and what we are collectively working for with every photo and blog post about the subject.

As the submission date came and went, we all waited on pins and needles for the judging process to finish and for the awards to be announced. We watched the official MPA twitter account for updates and finally the day (or tweet) arrived letting us know the winners would be announced soon. As the winners in each category were announced and I went through each genre, my heart sank more and more. It isn’t that the work that was chosen wasn’t fantastic for the most part, it was, hands down, but it was the amount of duplicate winners in each category that really tripped me up. To me, it seemed that the encouragement that could have gone to many went to few. Perhaps it is the mother and teacher in me that cringed at the amount of duplicates, perhaps not. Let me make clear that this article is not driven by my lack of winning. I have operated within the art world for many years and understand that rejection goes along with success and growth.  This article grew out of my concern for the amount of negativity surrounding the MPAs this year.

If we, as a community, are going to continue to grow in a healthy manner sometimes things have to be faced head on. In talking with multiple photographers, they also expressed frustration and a lack of understanding about the duplicates in the categories and cross categorically.  Funnily enough, upon doing a extensive internet search on the topic of the MPAs I didn’t find one negative statement. I began to wonder why this was. Do you think it is because people were afraid to voice any concern because they didn’t win? Perhaps people thought that if they said anything it would cast them in a negative light. Well, fortunately, I am unafraid of looking like a brat throwing a fit in the cereal aisle so I figured why not take the rumors and negativity straight to the source- Dan Berman, the creator and head of the MPAs. Dan graciously agreed to chat with me one afternoon to discuss the MPAs and the judging process.

We both agreed that getting all this out in the open is better than letting it fester.

The most important thing I came away with from our conversation is that Dan believes in the integrity of the awards beyond all else. When choosing his judges, he was careful to choose fellow artists that were in the public eye and actively contributing to their genre. From the moment the judging began, he had to trust them fully to take the responsibility as a judge seriously and conscientiously. Dan himself has no part in the judging and deals with the administrative side of the awards only. He described the process of judging to me in great detail and I appreciated his transparency immensely. He assured me that each entry is nameless and that the judging is blind as much as it can be. Of course, the judges are also a part of this community so odds are they had come across some of the work at one time or another.

Once the judges, working alone, whittled the entries down to short list of 30 the list was then sent to a 3 group team that would further narrow it down. The original judge chooses the best in the category. In talking about the duplicates in the catergories Dan’s reply was that he had to go with what the judges chose. In his words, “If I overrode their choices then I was destroying the process. It would be me saying to the judges “sorry your choices are not valid.” 

The amount of duplicates came in part by entrants being able to entry one photo into multiple categories. For example, a strong photo black and white landscape is a strong photo in landscape and black and white, thusly it would receive a nod in both categories. Entrants would also receive multiple nods within a category if the judge happened to blindly chose two or more of their photos.

The most telling part of our conversation is when I shared with Dan some of the rumors surrounding the MPAs. {I am not going to talk about those here because they are, as I said, rumors.} Dan got quiet for a second, perhaps gathering his thoughts, perhaps choking back anger. He let out a big breath and said he had never heard any of the rumors and was quite shocked by all of them. He pointed out that all of the rumors pointed to either the judges or himself jeopardizing the awards and ultimately, their reputations in the mobile community. He also mentioned that he wished people would come straight to him but my guess is that most people would not say anything for the reasons I cited above. No one wants to look like a spoiled sport, but I will say that our conversation was a great one and that Dan is open to discussing anything. So, if you are like me, hit him up. I bet you money you would find him warm and receptive to whatever you bring to him.

All we have in this online world is our reputation and integrity. If Dan, or any  judge, was to intentionally sabotage the awards what would it gain? In the immediate, whoever they chose would have the notoriety of winning a mention etc but in the long run, the awards would be impugned. Word would spread and the next time the entry call came people would be more hesitant to spend their money buying spots. For me, this is what it came down to- integrity. One of my favorite movie quotes of all time says, “Our integrity sells for so little, but it’s all we really have”. In a world that is connected by bandwidth and megabytes, we have to be cautious to maintain our respectability and  integrity. Does this mean that Dan and the judges aren’t fallible? Of course not, everyone makes mistakes every now and again. Does it sound like mistakes were made within the judging process? No, it doesn’t. Do I think that Dan would have put a stop to any hinkiness that he caught wind of? Yes, because again it is his time, integrity, and family he sacrifices for these awards.

I wrote to a few of the judges to get their take on the MPAs but unfortunately most didn’t respond so we  have only a small view on that side of things but I was able to snag a few of the winners from last year to hear about their stories.

Thankfully, the judges that I did hear back from were thoughtful and well spoken and I found their responses incredibly helpful.


Image by Cecily Caceu, Honorable Mention Beach Category

This is what Judge Andy Royston of the Beach category had to say when I asked him about the judging process and the MPAs:

This was my second year of judging on the MPA Awards. A great honour – even if it means I could not enter my own work, which I am intensely proud of.

Last year I chaired the Sunlight category, whereas this year I was – in theory in my comfort zone – beaches.

As chair of the group my role was to refine the entrants down to around thirty so the other judges didn’t have a huge set to work with. I expected the category to have images that might be superficially similar to my own way of shooting but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The category attracted everything from verité to conceptual to good old fashioned fun.

Although I’m known mainly for quite naturalistic photography rather than layered multi-app creativity I do have a good knowledge of what the iPhone can do. I run a course on iPhoneography at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale and try to present the widest range of styles and skills to my students. I would show a collage piece to my class and one of the first questions would be “how do I do that…” As tutor it’s my duty to show and tell, so I’m quite adept as layered collage work even if I don’t share too much on the internet.

I worked late in the night to make sure that the selection was varied in approach, though images do tend to have a power regardless of technique. I’m a passionate colourist and do admire artists and photographers who are not shy with their color choices. But a strong black and white can be so powerful and at the end of the day my selections to go to round two were really easy.

The beach is a very challenging arena for photography. It can frequently be very bright, so controlling that and getting a strong emotive capture is part of the fun. Which brings me to the second aspect of beach photography. Fun, humour, spontaneity and chance have as much of a role to play as any carefully exposed natural scenic.

I’m a big fan of our genre and regularly look through the work of my favorite artists. So more than most I’m very much aware of trends in different iphoneography genres. I just love the medium and am fascinated by what can be done in this genre.

What surprised me was how few of the works felt familiar. Dan was careful to make sure that no names were associated with the images he passed on. I could hazard a guess or two but very often it turned out that I was quite wrong.

When my fellow ‘beach’ judges joined in a different dynamic came into play.

We used private Facebook groups to discuss the works, and my approach is always to write detailed analyses of each – partly to spark debate. I was seconded into two other areas including ‘landscapes’. I consider my own work as landscape even though I shoot the ocean all the time – I shoot it as a landscape not a ‘beach’ per se. The only challenge I had in this area was that so few color shots had made the cut, but otherwise it was all about doing justice to the shots in front of me.

The challenge of judging iPhone art is knowing the genre capabilities – not only of the iPhone as a camera but also the tricks used to turn a small photo into a big one. If anything this year the difficulty was being able to spot the easy textures and overlays from filter apps like Lenslight and Filtermania.

The use of filter apps was hotly debated. It was clear we needed to be across the differences between ‘out-of-the-box’ filter layers and work that was hand-done and original. Sure it’s possible to create great work via a simple combination of filter effects, but if all things are equal genuine artistry and invention must be rewarded.

That some artists won in more than one category is very exciting. I am in awe that different sets of judges could see quality in different criteria. I don’t see this as a problem, more an inspiration. I think the artists who took a win in more than one category are fantastic =- it was a thing of celebration that they took several prizes. The level of artistry was spectacular and all the category nominees are very worthy.

In the end we have to celebrate the whole of the iPhone oeuvre. Amazing photography and extraordinary multi-app collages. All fit into our movement which is still to be recognised as such in the collectable fine art world. At least a dozen of our finest are six-figure artists in my opinion. A huge challenge is to keep our nerve collectively and make sure that the fine art world recognise and collect the artists in our art/photography genre.

I guess next year’s challenge is to differentiate between iPhone and iPad, which have very different capabilities and challenges artistically. I guess Dan’s got that particular problem to handle! good luck mate!

A word from the people category Judge Dutch Doscher on the character of Dan and how much he personally invests into the MPAs every year:

Dan has always wanted the best for the MPA and when I say the best. I have seen the MPA spend more money than he should have for the prints. Rejecting prints that weren’t good enough and having them reprinted. I spent a week with Dan putting up the first two shows in LA and SF. If there is someone who should know it’s me.

In one day we framed over 70 images for 2 different shows then drove them to San Fran.

As far as the judging goes, I only want the best image in the category’s I’m judging in. We have no idea whose images they are, how many images the person submitted or anything else about the image or person.

I had the category of people and had to go though the literally thousands down to about 40. And every one of those 40 could have won. Then Dan has me weed out the top ten. When I say he makes me… This part hurts. People look and care for these 40 to 50 photos and you can tell. In some cases I’ve been moved deeply to see the care and honesty that went into them.

Ultimately its about capturing an image that is rare, moving and light.

There are other places in the community that have done shows, but the presentation has been on poster board or foam mounted. Dan gets the best frames for presentation and really cares about the prints.

Hope this helps.

Image by Amy Hughes, Honorable Mention Landscape

Now a word from past winners who share their moments of joy and success with us:

Melissa Vincent:

I entered the MPA/ArtHaus essay portion of the Mobile Photography Awards with a series of photos titled “The Rooms of William Faulkner”.  I shot them on my iPhone at the Pulitzer Prize winning author William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, MS. I was born and raised and still live in Mississippi today. It is very important to me as an artist to show a different side of Mississippi, one more positive than the normal, stereotypical one portrayed by the media. I took pictures of different rooms in his home and blended them with landscapes of photos I’d taken in Mississippi to create surreal, fine art pieces. Being chosen as the winner of the MPA/ArtHaus photo essay by gallery owners James Bacchi and Annette Schutz came as a big surprise to me. I am a self-taught photogapher/editor who began a journey in the fine art photography field only in the last year. The words that James and Annette used to describe my series and why they were drawn to it really motivated me and gave me the confidence I needed to continue making art. I went to San Francisco to the ArtHaus opening April 6 to see all five of my pieces in the series hanging. Daniel Berman, founder of the Mobile Photography Awards, did a beautiful job displaying my work. I was very pleased with how they looked. The opening was packed full of people who were interested in listening to how and why I created my William Faulkner series. It was definitely the most exciting adventure in the mobile photography/art world I’ve had to date.

Michał Koralewski:

I think I’ll remember this edition of Mobile Photo Awards to the end of my life. In just few days from a shy and overworked father-of-three I became a local celebrity and mobile photography expert, thanks to Dan and his contest.

Very late at night (it was the MPA results announcement day) I got some Twitter messages from my friends saying I won second prize in DPReview category and 3 honorable mentions in two other categories of MPA. I read these messages next day (it was friday, 1st of February) and it was just in time, because 10 minutes later I got first phone call from a journalist of the biggest local newspaper, who asked me for a comment about the prize and for an interview. Right after the interview I received few another phone calls – from two other local newspapers, one radio station and two internet magazines. Everyone wanted to know more about MPA, mobile photography, my passion, my prize, everyone wanted to show my photos on their websites and newspapers. It was very surprising and unexpected. I received a lot of e-mails, tweets and SMSes with congratulations from my friends, my family and even people I don’t know. When I finished my office work, went back home and opened my front door, I saw my wife talking on the phone and I heard “Yes, he just entered”. It was Onet, the biggest Polish internet portal, they wanted to interview me and publish the winning photo. Later this day I got an e-mail from Polish Radio, asking for an interview for their english language station. I have been receiving links to the news about my success for another 2 weeks. There were over 30 news and interviews about the winning photo, my mobile photography passions and MPA in many regional and national newspapers and magazines. I got tons of SMSes from my friends saying they heard about me in radio stations, tv news etc. I got even a letter from a member of the European Parliament with congratulations. Some days later I had a live interview in the biggest regional radio station about MPA and mobile photography. And after two months it’s still not the end of MPA impact on my life – thanks to MPA I had my first mobile photography exhibition, supported by the head of the municipality I live in, and another exhibition will start at 15th of April (it will be supported by the local Voivodship office). I know there is one more exhibition coming in the end of the month. I was also asked to be a main jury member of a nationwide mobile photography contest (which is a big honour for me) and to lead some mobile photography trainings.

I didn’t earn a cent on this craziness, but I met a lot of great people, wonderful photographers, known journalists and I feel the MPA contest opened many doors for my further photography career. And – what’s most important for me – I can see admiration and pride in my wife’s eyes. :)

Deb Braun:

My experience with the first MPAs last year was really great. I entered as a challenge. Deena Feinberg (deena21 on instagram) and I were talking about ways to push ourselves and we agreed to curate some images of ours to enter a contest. We thought it would be a good exercise in looking at our images critically. I think it was also her way of gently encouraging me to share my images in new places. So, I picked 10 images and worked with Deena to whittle it down to 5. I entered 5 images in a number of different categories and felt good about meeting my goal. I was shocked and thrilled to find that my image “into the wind” was shortlisted and then won the Landscape category.

Last spring was really fun, as a category winner. Daniel sent out the promised prizes for winning the category. My image had tons of exposure – HuffPo, a home design magazine, other print publications and online. I attended the ArtHaus Gallery opening, was on a local SF news station talking about the show and my work. The image was in another gallery show of MPA winners in southern California. I loved being at the shows and meeting so many kind, inspiring, generous, members of the mobile photography community. One of the best experiences I had during the whole thing was spending the day at the SF Fine Arts Fair, where select images from the MPA show were hung. It was amazing to talk to art dealers and collectors. Daniel Berman was a perfect spokesperson for mobile photography – letting the images speak for themselves to hone the point that this work is photography and art. I talked to people about my work, and as best I could, about the work of the other artists represented in the MPA booth. People were amazed, for a moment, about the whole “camera phone” thing. But they quickly got past that and saw the work for its intrinsic artistry. None of my prints sold at any event, but I still came away from the whole thing feeling really happy and excited about the whole experience and what the MPAs are contributing to the artists and the art. Daniel is one of the people really doing something about how the work we do is perceived by the general public, instead of just tweeting angry messages about how instagram is ruining photography. I think the MPAs and Juxt are both real forces for advancement of art in general. I also know that I grew tremendously by participating, last spring. Personally, I learned to let myself be vulnerable by sharing my work – I learned to look at my work more critically, but also more kindly – I learned that the people I looked up to in this art form are real quality people who share, encourage, take pride, work hard, and are great fun. And now I have the beautiful framed print of my image up in my house.

To see more of the winners head to the MPA website to be treated to multiple slide shows of the winners and honorable mentions. Also, if you would like to read who else inspires the MPAs check out the blog.

2 Comments

  1. As a judge of this year’s black and white category I wanted to add a few quick words about my process for judging.

    First up, as Andy and Dutch mentioned I was very honoured to be selected to judge and took the responsibility seriously. To start the process, I received all 2,000 of the unnamed photos submitted to the black and white category. From there I created a set of criteria to help with my decision making process. 1. I looked for originality in content. 2. I was strict with technical execution 3. I focused on being open to all genres and styles within the category.

    Over the course of an evening I whittled the 2000 down to 100, 60 then the final 45 selected for the private Facebook group discussion. Of those 45 photos I only knew two of the photographers, one was Helen Breznik because she was recognisable in the image and the other was AikBeng Chia because I know his work very well. Neither of these works were selected as the winner and runner-up.

    The Facebook group deliberation process was conducted with two other judges, again this was an in-depth and passionate exercise. We judged the pros and cons of each image and reached consensus on winner and runner-up. I only found out the name of the winner, Lisa Wiltse, at the same time as it was announced by Dan and the MPAs.

    So to reiterate, I think Dan does a remarkable job of running a high quality, transparent photo competition. We may not all win an individual prize but through Dan’s hard work we all win through broader recognition of our medium.

    I’m also happy to answer any other questions people might have about the process.

  2. like article and insightful

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