How can second beat first?

The 2016 NSW Epson Professional Photographer of the Year Awards saw Sydney-based fine art photographer and graphic designer Alison Lyons scoop the pool, with a Gold Distinction and three Golds for the four images in the portfolio she entered in the Illustrative category.


Wedding day portrait of Alison Lyons. (Pic: Jeff Davies)

This left daylight a distant second in overall results across the four-print portfolio, with the next portfolio scoring 31 points less –  a huge margin in the context of these awards.

Alison (pictured right) had every right to assume this outstanding result – she believes she had the highest-rated portfolio in the NSW Awards overall – would see her named Professional Photographer of the Year in the Illustrative category. She also had the right to expect she would be in contention for the overall prize, NSW Professional Photographer of the Year (PPY). After all, no other category winning portfolio – and there were 12 categories – had scored more than a couple of Golds.

Instead, she left the awards night with a consolation prize – a Finalists Certificate in her category – and an understandable sense of hurt and injustice. There wasn’t even an informal reference from the podium that there had been a ‘Four Gold’ portfolio. There’s nothing on the website.

The Illustrative category award was presented to a photographer whose portfolio scored one Gold, one Silver Distinction and one Silver. The fourth print was a ‘non-scoring print’.

The Robot.

‘The Robot’, one of Alison’s Gold Award images. In this series, Alison Lyons takes components from her architectural and travel photography and reassembles them to create whimsical imaginary creatures. The images reward careful scrutiny. Go to the end of the story for the rest of the portfolio. (Alison Lyons)

So how can that happen?
The judging is in two sections. First there is the assessment of the individual images – this is the AIPP judging process we witness at the national awards. It’s collaborative, public and, because it uses a points system, comparatively objective.

In the second phase – awarding category and overall winners – the judges separately and individually nominate the winning portfolio and for some unfathomable reason, no discussion can be entered into. (Which isn’t to stop judges informally convening prior to the judging.)

So one part of the judging is transparent, collaborative, open and data-driven. The second part is opaque and personal.

Alison has pursued the issue with the AIPP and outlined her issues in a business-like four-page letter, which has also been circulating within the professional photographic community more broadly.

‘The problem is not in the judging of the prints over the course of the event, but in the final selection process in choosing the Category Winner, the PPY,’ she wrote. ‘Evidently it doesn’t reward the highest achieving photographer.

‘This denigrates the value of the judging that proceeds it. I believe the current judging system is quite fair and transparent in its execution. But I believe the evaluation of the PPY that takes place behind closed doors is failing.’

Alison doesn’t want or expect a change in the outcome of the 2016 Awards, but she would like to see the system changed: ‘I was surprised that the 1 Gold Distinction and 3 Golds didn’t result in the acquisition of the NSW Illustrative Photographer of NSW 2016 title. I fully understand the judging process, but I would like to raise some concerns about its efficacy. I also realise that it is impossible to change the outcome for these particular awards. What is done is done. But I am urging you, for the sake of future entrants of these awards, to consider what I am outlining below…’

In a recent issue of the AIPP Journal (formerly The Working Pro) editor Peter Eastway, one of the old guard of the association, makes a valiant attempt at justifying the hard-to-justify in an article entitled Why Do 4 Silver Beat 4 Golds? (Should more correctly have been Why does one Gold, one Silver Distinction and One Silver beat one Gold Distinction and three Gold? or more succinctly Why Does Second beat First – but hey!)

Apparently it’s all about fairness. Peter argues that the judges’ awarding of points for prints is the subjective part of the process because they might be feeling a bit tired after a long day, or mark a good print down because they have been dazzled by an excellent print they had seen immediately before.

‘Our judges are human,’ he wrote, ‘and the judging process has its limitations.’

‘Variable consistency’ is the issue. Because points allocation can be inconsistent, ‘what matters is achieving a Gold Award.’ Then he argues that isn’t so important, that what the judges are doing in awarding first place in a category is ‘instead of assessing prints against an external standard (is it a Silver or is it not) we are comparing one set of prints against another set of prints.’

This is Peter’s precis of ‘the new system’: ‘Take the top three portfolios and re-assess
them. If the highest scoring portfolio really is the best, it will still win. On the other hand, now that the judges can compare one portfolio against another, they will be able to deliver a verdict based on the direct comparison of the prints.’

But if a portfolio which is 31 bloody points in front of the next one – putting aside its superiority in precious metal terms – suddenly becomes an also-ran, then something, somewhere, appears to be seriously wrong.

Either the original judges blundered in awarding too few points to the winning portfolio, or the judging of the category winner was simply wrong. And wrong means unfair. Peter Eastway’s argument may have some validity if the margin was, say, 10 or 15 points.

And as in any form of judging, the appearance of unfairness is pretty well the same as actual unfairness in the damage it can do to the state PPYs and APPAs.

It’s understood that this isn’t the first time a photographer has walked away from the state PPYs with as justifiable sense of unfairness over similar issues. It’s just that this time, Alison has taken a stand.

‘The value in receiving a Photographer of the Year award is twofold. Firstly, you receive recognition within your peer group that you have achieved a certain standard of excellence, but more importantly, there is a commercial value in the award,’ she told ProCounter. ‘You can add it to your website, your marketing material and when pitching for new work. It helps you grow your business, both locally and overseas.

‘People have said to me that I’m the only person who has complained, so the system must be working. I think it’s just that I’m the only person so far who has complained…’

Below are the other three award-winning images from Alison’s portfolio…See more of her diverse range of work at
– Keith Shipton

The Beetle

The Beetle (Alison Lyons)

'The Dragonfly'

‘The Dragonfly’ (Alison Lyons)

'The Clown', (Alison Lyons)

‘The Clown’ (Alison Lyons)


4 thoughts on “How can second beat first?

  1. This is why I will not be participating in the AIPP anymore. There is not much technical expertise in the industry, apart from a few and those are not rewarded any more. Just the flavours of the day. The price you pay for nothing doesn’t equate to a good business decision, to be a member . Epson really need to get their act together as well. . I have 5 large format epson printers, yet they still sprinkle sugar over the photographers that will not have a printer or intend buying one, and I cannot even rate a call. I know how you feel Alison Lyons. The last awards I entered in Qld ,there were some absolutely wonderfully composed and lit images, yet images of a boot and baby looking outside with the background completely blown out got a silver and the beautifully expose images rated in the hi 70,s

  2. Alison, you are a ‘gold winner” no matter what they say!!
    Congratulations to a Lovely and talented lady.
    Best wishes
    Peter Rose

  3. I feel for the organisers of the AIPP and our Awards system who seem to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. May I first separate the awards system from Alison’s experience? A decade ago, we gave first place in the category to the four prints with the highest aggregate score. Over several years, we received complaints about this not being fair. Significantly, many of these complaints were from the judges themselves because, in their collective opinion, the best portfolio did not end up with the highest score, but they were powerless to change things. The AIPP agreed the old system didn’t work and today around the world, there are many professional competitions that take the top photos or portfolios and assess them a second time because it gives the judges an opportunity to review their scores. What’s not fair is asking a judge to make an irreversible decision several hundred times in a day without a chance of review. What’s not fair for an entrant is having one print assessed by a judge who is generous with the scores, while another entrant is scored by a miserly adjudicator. And the reason the final category judging is held behind closed doors is to keep the winners anonymous during the final PPY judging (which is between all the category winners), and also so there’s a surprise at the awards dinner or announcement party. It is ‘opaque’ for good reason. When I was the APPA Chairman, I inherited and defended these rules because they are fairer than giving first prize to the highest scoring portfolio. In fact, I congratulate the AIPP for listening to its members and creating a system that better served them. Sometimes we forget that the people who run the AIPP, voluntarily, are just other photographers like me and Alison. So now, let’s turn to Alison’s experience. Keith, I agree with your opinion and were I one of the judges (and with the greatest respect to the photographer who won the category, and the judges on the panel), I would have voted for Alison’s portfolio as well. You suggest that the judges were wrong, but how can an opinion be wrong? We can disagree with opinions, but if we have invited someone to be a judge, I think we need to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intentions. There were five judges on the panel and it is a majority decision. The process is not wrong, nor is it unfair, but you’re correct that situations like these can damage the Awards when they are looked at from the outside. Thank you for giving me the opportunity of defending our system. And by all means declare that Alison was robbed and (on this occasion) I will agree with you, but I don’t think it is ‘fair’ of us to call into question the fairness of the AIPP awards system or the honesty of its judges. This year I estimate the AIPP will conduct at 120 category judgings and I can guarantee you 119 will work as the designed – but that is just my ‘opinion’!

    • Thanks, Peter, for taking the time to give us the background to the system as it stands today. I just re-read the story to try to see whether I had indeed called into question the honesty of the judges. I think you are on shaky ground in that assertion. But as for questioning the fairness of the system – that’s what people do in open societies.

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