Being a finalist in the NPPP

About a month ago, I was working with one of my videographers on the pre-production of a tricky video we were shooting the next day, when my mobile rang. The number came up as ‘Unknown’ and the location was Canberra, and so I assumed it was a telemarketer. This impression was in no way diminished when my videographer looked at my phone and said ‘Oooh, someone’s about to save some money on their electricity bill!’
So I think it’s fair to say that my tone when answering the phone was dripping with ‘You’re wasting my very important and valuable time…please sod off!’ But then the person at the other end of the line said ‘Hi this is Tara from the National Portrait Gallery, and I just wanted to say congratulations, you’re a finalist in this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize!’

If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood car chase where the driver is flying along in reverse and then does an epic skid while spinning the car around and changing into a forward gear, then speeding off in one fluid move.

via Gfycat

I was now attempting to do the conversational equivalent of this, as I tried to desperately go from ‘Go away telemarketer!’ to ‘Oh my God this amazing, thank you so much!!!’ with the additional degree of difficulty offered by trying to do this while walking swiftly through an open-plan office trying to find an empty meeting room.
I think my response of ‘Oh…that is good’, really nailed it in terms of conveying how excited I was to have been selected as a finalist, and in no way sounded like I was an underwhelmed jerk who was learning English through an iPhone app.
Thankfully, responding to good news like a human being wasn’t one of the pre-requisites for the NPPP, and so I’m still a finalist. Seeing as this isn’t a position I ever expected to be in, I thought I’d take you through how I got here.
BUT SPOILER ALERT – I can’t post the photo that made it to the final 48. So it isn’t in this post!!!

4 generations have worked this farm, and I got to meet three of them.

In it to win it

I never buy a Tattslotto ticket on the basis that I have basically the same chance of winning whether I buy one or not. My approach to entering photo competitions has been pretty similar. That’s not to say that I haven’t had friends and family say things like ‘Oh you should enter that in a competition!’ or just send me links to photo competitions via Messenger saying ‘That photo you took of *insert thing here* would be perfect for this!’.
But these same people say things like ‘No of course the haircut looks great!’ and ‘This is delicious…you can hardly taste that it’s burnt’…so their opinion only carries so much weight.
Plus, have you seen the photos that are being submitted? They’re really freaking good! Who the hell am I to enter a competition and nominate myself as being in their league?
Not to mention you have to spend more money on an entry fee than a lotto ticket…and you have to spend a LOT more time filling in the entry form on a photo competition than you do on a lotto ticket.

My Uncle John, on his brother’s 80th birthday

But this year I made a commitment to actually enter a few more photo competitions, because ‘Oh but everyone else is so good!’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m too scared to enter, but I want to sound magnanimous about it!’ If there’s one thing I wish I’d learnt earlier, it’s that opportunities don’t fall into the laps of the lazy and introspective…they go to the people who actually take a risk and put themselves out there.
It’s also actually a pretty good reality check. In Lightroom I normally rate my photos from 1-5 stars. Any 1-2 stars are deleted, 3 stars are given another look, and if they don’t get bumped up to a four they’re deleted. I think it’s fair to say that my social media feed is pretty much all my four star photos, and I get about a dozen 5 star photos per year. But for a photo competition you need to go through those 5 stars and hope that someone else sees the same things that you see in it.

My first attempt at a long-exposure portrait

The cull

I managed to cull my favourite portraits for 2018-19 down to 20 photos, and this was quite a fun process. You get to sit down and go through all of your photos for the year and pick out ones you really like. The next step is not so much fun, you have to start eliminating photos that you really like, and this is even less fun when you have to start getting rid of photos of family members, or choosing between photos of your kids, or getting rid of photos that you know took a lot of effort to take.
I managed to get the list down to 12, and then took it to my family for feedback. They were of course politely brutal and got it down to 7. I then sent this list of 7 to my Graphic Design, Social Media and Video teams at work and asked them for their top three. Herein lies the challenge inherent in asking people to judge artistic endeavour…people like different things. So seven different people came back with 6 different top threes, which was not super helpful. But all 7 had the same photo in their top 3, which was VERY helpful.
A smart person would have just entered that photo, but because I like to make more work for myself, so I entered three photos (but for the record, the one that everyone chose, is also the one that the judges chose!)

Double exposure portait

The photo

I know most of you are probably just reading this and saying ‘stop talking about your bloody culling process and talk about the photo!’ Well the simple truth of the matter is that the photo that was chosen as a finalist is actually embargoed until the winner is announced in March (so I will be adding it to this blog then…but not before), but I think that I can safely say it was a photo of one of my kids (about 80% of my photos are of the kids, so I don’t think that’s giving too much away).
It was taken on my Fuji Xt1 with the 56mm f1.2 lens, and as much as I would love to claim otherwise, it was not pre-conceived or meticulously planned. I had set up my soft-box to take a different photo, and when this opportunity presented itself, I took it.
I would never claim to have the technical skill to manufacture a great portrait, but I do feel I have the personality required to create an environment where a great portrait can happen.

Man in a hat.


As part of the submission you have to have the consent of the person in the photo (one of the reasons I never entered this photo of Uncle Jack Charles is because even though he was happy for me to take his photo, I’ve never been able to get onto him to explicitly say he was happy for me to enter it into a competition!)

Uncle Jack Charles

It can be really easy to just say, well they’re my child, so I’m sure they’re happy for me to use the photo. But just as I always ask my kids before I post an image of them on social media, I’d asked my kids if they were happy for me to enter the photos.
I won’t lie, it does feel weird asking your kids for permission to do something. But I think it’s really important for kids to have control over how they are portrayed to the world, I would have hated to have had numerous moments of my life documented and sent out into the world to live on forever without my permission. It’s also a good opportunity to show how a single photo can suddenly take on another life outside of your control once it’s in other people’s hands.
So parents, get your kids consent before you post that next photo of them on Instagram, they’re the ones who are going to have to live with it.

I would love to claim I can both do a tie and take a photo…but in truth this photo was taken by Luke Vesty

So now what?

Well now I have to get the photo printed and mounted ready for exhibition. And book a trip with the family to Canberra for the big event at the National Portrait Gallery. And spend a LOT of time working out how I can weave the terms ‘serendipity’ and ‘lyricism’ into my descriptions of my own photo. And retrospectively charging friends and family for any photos I may have taken of them (it’s only fair, and I’m sure they’ll understand).
But most of all I’m going to celebrate the fact that one of my photos is going to be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, and then going on tour around Australia.
And that’s pretty amazing!!!

Swimming self-portrait