I have been a member in the local Brighton And Hove Camera Club for about three years now. At the club I have learned about The Royal Photographic Society, and the fact that they give internationally recognised distinctions for photographers who demonstrate a certain level of skill in photography. I got my LRPS last year, and as soon as I received it, I wanted to get the next level of distinction for my photography. I don't have a straight-forward reason why; I think it's just some kind of "proof" for myself that I have learned something during these five-six years that I have "done photography". I haven't taken any formal studies nor training in photography so I haven't had a recognition from "an authority" before - just positive comments from some people who have liked my work.
The Royal Photographic Society is open for all to join, and they offer three levels of distinctions. ARPS - Associateship - is the second level, which is roughly equivalent of a Degree in photography (as is evident from their list of exceptions). This is what the society say about the ARPS:
...to be successful at Associateship level you need to demonstrate a high standard of technical competence as well as provide evidence of creative ability and the development of personal style. You also need to be able to show that you are in complete control of technical aspects which allows you to produce quality which is entirely 'Fit for purpose' i.e. suits the subject.
So, as soon as I'd got the LRPS last year, I had in mind to go for the ARPS next. Due to travels and other general busyness, I didn't get round to thinking about it seriously until February this year. I went to a BHCC distinctions evening on a Thursday in February with a stack of postcard size photos I'd printed of photos I'd taken in Bhutan in March 2010. From those photos, Bill Wisden (Hon. FRPS) picked 15 photos for a panel. Not just like that, mind you - there was some shuffling and swapping of images; for example, Bill tried including some animal photos but couldn't quite fit them in and anyway he wasn't sure whether animal photos are appropriate in a Travel Panel... I (secretly) wanted to have one photo in that Bill said was a snapshot, was surprised by one that he included as I didn't actually think it was a great photo (but it's all about making a panel work as a whole, so I trusted his opinion) etc etc. So, as Bill's and others' comments about my photos seemed quite positive, I went ahead and booked a place for a travel ARPS assessment on April 27th. That would give me a couple on months to work on the panel.
Then came the day before the distinction assessment in Bath. Yup. The day before the assessment date. I hadn't done anything about the panel. Nothing like last minute to get something done, right? I was hoping that a local art supply store would have enough mounting boards for the 15 images - if they didn't I would have had to cancel going to Bath the next day, basically. I went to the shop first thing in the morning, and lucky me, they did have enough white mounting board in stock! I had planned to start cutting the board straight away, but ended up faffing with the images instead. You see, Bill Wisden - along with other extremely talented and experienced photographers at the distinction evening - had helped me put together the panel of images, but to my shame, I'd lost the little prints that were used for the purpose! I remembered most of the photos that had been chosen, but not all. So I had to make up the panel anew. I printed about 20 images in size A4 and tried to make the panel work.
After having worked out the photos I wanted in the panel, I finally started cutting the mounting boards in the early evening.
Word of advice here: if you cut A2 size boards on your floor, make sure that you are cutting them on a very even surface. I didn't realise this first and cut across our floor boards (on another sheet of mounting board, i.e. not cutting straight into our floor boards) which are not very level, and ended up having to push like mad on the cutter to actually cut through the board the whole length. This meant that I very soon I had a very sore thumb and quite sore back, and had to take many breaks and, eventually, pain killers, just to keep going. At some point I realised I should cut along one floor board instead of across floor boards to keep things level, and when I did that, it was a lot easier. Nevertheless, cutting the 15 boards to size (40x50 cm) and then a window in each 15 of them took me hours!
In between cutting and being in pain, I made a hanging plan for the panel and worked on my Statement of Intent (max. 150 words) - both required for the distinction submission. I finally cut the last mounting board window at 3 AM.
Two hours later, after a wink or two of sleep, I woke up to make finishing touches and then drive three hours to Bath for the 9:15 AM start of registration for the assessment at the RPS premises.
When I arrived I found out that there were only 12 applicants on this day. I chatted to a couple of them while we waited for the judges to get ready for the assessment. The judges kept us waiting for an hour... an hour of "Are my photos good enough?!?!" going through my mind. Then, we were finally called into the assessment room.
The assessment room could well also be called The Room of Anxiety, or The Room of Sheer Terror, depending on one's disposition. Mine started with slight anxiety and surprisingly quickly turned into sheer terror. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me explain. When we entered, we were greeted by a simply fantastic example ARPS panel of travel landscapes displayed at the front of the room (not shown in the above photo as I wasn't sure whether it was OK to take photos in there). It was terribly impressive, and looking at it in awe I felt very inadequate indeed. "My panel is nothing compared to this!" I thought, and was getting pretty sure I'd fail the assessment I turned in my seat to say to a lady behind me "Are they trying to intimidate us with that panel?" and she replied "They are succeeding!"(This, by the way, was the lady who had the best panel of the day, in my opinion, I later learned).
The assessment day started with two panels on CD, projected on the wall, twice through the 15 images shown one after another, and then all of them left projected on the wall in thumbnail size so that the judges could refer to them when voicing their opinions/judgements on them. There were four judges in total - each with a vote for or against the panel being recommended for the distinction, and apart from the simple vote, the Chair of the day gave them all a chance to say something about each panel being assessed. Two of the judges were fairly lenient in their assessment -- the two others, definitely not. The latter two didn't spare their words! Don't get me wrong, all of them were requiring a high standard of photography, but it was like good cop, bad cop - and while I respected the bad cops' assessments, I did think one of them didn't need to be quite so disparaging to make his point.
I could almost hear all of us applicants shaking in our boots listening to the bad cops ripping the images apart. We heard how wonderfully composed, atmospheric (in my opinion) images were ruined by highlights (not even burned highlights, I might add) in the background and were just "plain bad photography". Others were snapshots, soft, over-sharpened, etc. I am in general pretty picky about sharpness in images, but from my seat in the room, I didn't see any of these problems in the images in question. Just saying, to explain how harsh it all sounded to me, as I couldn't see for myself what was wrong. The first panel got a divided vote from the four judges and was saved by the Chair's deciding vote. The second panel got a divided vote and was failed by the Chair's vote. Judging by the silence and tension in the room, I wasn't the only one who was starting to feel terror about their chances of passing!
After the two projected CD panels had been shredded to pieces, the first printed panel was brought out, and it was my panel! It looked horrendous after the beautiful, fantastic panel that had greeted us when we first entered the room. I had no chance.
The four judges stood up and walked to the prints to stick their disapproving noses into them. Or so I felt. They were mumbling something I couldn't hear, hovering from one photo to another, like four bees hovering over a flower whose nectar wasn't quite good enough to suck. I heard one of them laugh at one of my photos... "Are they THAT crap!!" I thought. "They are laughing at my photos, for goodness sakes! Can the floor just open and suck me in right now, please..." After a few gruelling minutes of this, the judges were asked to sit down and cast their vote. And of course we at the back can't even see how they vote!
(the hanging plan of my panel)
The Chair asked whether any of the judges wanted to speak, and one of the bad cops stood up. Oh no! He started listing all the things he didn't like about the panel. There is no engagement with the people in the photos (which is true), yet he complained that some of the young monks look into the camera, i.e. it's posed. Well, perhaps he meant that all the people photos should have a connection between the person and the photographer or all not have a connection, but not a mixture of both in one panel. Photo no. 7 is posed, same with photo no. 13, and there seems to be a problem with the printing of no. 13 (didn't specify what kind of problem). Photo no. 8 is boring and there's something strange going on at the front of photo no 5. I couldn't even hear everything he - and the other bad cop after him! - said due to the fact that I was repeating "I'm not going to pass, I'm not going to pass, I'm not going to get the distinction, they hate it, I stayed up all night for nothing, my photos are rubbish, I'm not going to get the distinction, the panel is a disgrace, it's not going to pass...." in my head. To be honest, the critique I wrote above could well be a muddle of the things that the two bad cops mentioned. I was too nervous to focus.
After the torturous judgements from the two, the Chair stood up and said that he feels he needs to speak his mind and started by saying that he really likes the panel! What? Do I have a chance after all? Oh my god, I was a nervous wreck by now and I wasn't sure who I was (being usually a very laid-back person who doesn't get anxious or nervous). The Chair went on saying that the panel definitely gives a sense of place, culture and people of Bhutan in the variety of photos, said how he loved no. 6, and how wonderful the character is in photo no. 15 (and I realised that the laughter I had heard earlier was good-humoured laughter between one of the good cops and the Chair as they were looking at this photo). He said that there's a little story even in photo no. 8 (the one that was deemed boring by a bad cop just earlier). He said other things, but - even though I felt extremely relieved as I realised that the Chair was basically saving my panel with his deciding vote - I was still a bundle of nerves from the bad cop treatment, and couldn't hear or take in everything that was said. Anyway, while the Chair was talking it seemed that other people in the room were holding their breath with me, and feeling the relief with me when it started to sound like I was going to be recommended for the distinction. And when the Chair finally announced just that, I got a big applause and lots of "Well done!"s from others in the room. Phew!! What an experience.
A few more comments about the photos: regardless of some of the comments, all of the judges seemed to think highly of the young monks photo no. 3, and surprisingly photo no. 9, which is the one Bill Wisden said is a snapshot (what does he know, haha ;-). It is actually a snapshot in a sense that I snapped it from a moving car, but I did especially intend to get a photo like that where I could have people in the foreground and a Dzong visible in the background. It's not a fantastic photo by any means, but to me, at least, it tells a story of father and son walking back home after having spent the day at a festival at the Dzong. I saw people walking on the road all along the way when I was being driven back to the festival town that evening, and at every bend of the road I was hoping I could get something like that in the frame. I was really glad to hear that someone else thought the photo tells a story, too.
So there you go, a roller coaster of a distinction assessment experience for me. Not just me, though... one other applicant actually had a little cry to herself after her panel was assessed. She had a unanimous vote for the distinction and hardly any negative was said about her photos, but I think the nerves got the better of her.
All in all, about half of the applications were successful on the day, which is a far better ratio than usual, apparently. There were 15 panels in total - three of which had been sent from abroad. Only three panels got a unanimous for vote from the four judges. The criteria for a successful ARPS distinction has been tightened considerably in the recent years, I have heard. I do think I was lucky to get the distinction, as my effort was quite half-hearted and rushed. I can't say that I'm 100% happy with my panel - I think I could have made it better by investing more time in preparing it, but at least it wasn't a completely failed effort. Last year I got only praise at my LRPS assessment and passed with flying colours, which was a much nicer experience than this year's roller coaster. If I ever decide to apply for an FRPS, I will make sure that I take plenty of time to prepare, and apply with a panel that I'm completely happy with and proud of. (Yeah, famous last words!)