We met Hester Keijser at SCHAU Photo Festival in Dortmund in 2014. She is a writer, curator and can often be found judging international photo prizes and awards.
Can you offer a quick introduction to who you are, where you live and what you do?
I’m an independent blogger, critic, curator and ‘personal sounding board’ for select individual photographers. I’ve worked with various international institutions, ranging from highly commercial galleries to non-profit festivals and arts foundations. Currently, I’m associate curator of a festival and a gallery, and advisory member of the Mondriaan Fund for visual art and cultural heritage in the Netherlands.
Which festivals / prizes do you have experience judging / selecting artists for?
Over the past years, I’ve nominated photographers for Paul Huf Awards, Joop Swart Masterclasses, Plat(t)form at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Düsseldorf Portfolio Reviews, Schau Festival, Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, Prix Elysée and of course for the Noorderlicht Festival, where I was co-curator of the 2105 edition. I regularly review portfolios, and a few times I’ve had to honor of being a jury member, for instance for the Tokyo International Photo Festival or the Düsseldorf Portfolio Awards. Once I sat on a jury for a small grant funded by a Japanese organization, but I walked out because I felt their jurying process lacked clear rules and consistency in the election process.
What are the key criteria that you search for when looking at a piece of work?
I look for something in the work that makes it a particular match for whichever organization is looking to single out photographers. It is obvious that the nominees for a masterclass in photojournalism are going to have to meet different criteria than for a more artistically oriented award. As a jury member, I feel I have a duty as a match maker. It’s not only about my own taste. Within a preselected pool of nominees I do of course weigh candidates on such notoriously elusive and intangible criteria as ‘strength, consistency, authorship’ of the work, which has to have a certain itch. And it doesn’t matter if I am familiar with the work or not. Or rather, if I see a certain portfolio turn up in every possible competition, I notice that I tend to respond with more reservation, and instead I will push for the unusual suspects.
Images by – Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs
Do you have a preference to finding work online, in print or in exhibitions?
It really depends largely on the work and the occasion. Some work cannot be appreciated on a screen, but has to be seen installed in space, which is why I end up googling a lot for ‘installation view + name” of the photographer. In some cases I need to give the printing quality a close inspection, because this is also a place where the magic of a work can happen. What I’ve come to prefer and appreciate most of all, is to have face to face conversations with the photographers, and these encounters often tell me the things online presentations keep me wondering about.
There are so many awards / submissions for emerging photographers to submit to, how can you best decide which to apply for ?
Apply common sense. Check out the submission criteria, look at previous winners, see if your work is on par with that. But that’s a no brainer.
Ask yourself if you want your work to be judged by the jury members that have been appointed. Scrutinize them if you don’t know their names. How is the gender divide? Are they only from Western practices or do they represent a wider cultural diversity /geographical range? And it never hurts to ask a mentor or a more experienced friendly photographer or curator for their advice if it’s worth your while to go through the tedium of applying.
More important, be wary of entering festivals with admission fees, because you might end up being one of the donkeys that carries the brand name of the festival or the award to greater recognition, leaving you only with less money in your pocket and time spent on submissions. Cui bono – who benefits? – is still one of the most crucial questions to ask in any circumstance. I’m not saying all opportunities that ask for admission fees are to be shunned, but it doesn’t hurt to follow the money. Personally, when I am asked to be on a jury, I inquire if they have funds to waive admission fees for photographers coming from countries where paying with Paypal or credit cards is not an option, or for whom an admission fee of 35 euros constitutes a monthly income. This is a signal of the organization’s policy towards inclusiveness and their dedication to become a truly international event.
Another item photographers tend to not pay too much attention to, is who is sponsoring awards. Which patrons or companies are involved? Google their names. Check their backgrounds. Are they engaged in something called ‘art washing’? Will you be receiving dirty money when you’d win? How disinterested is a sponsor’s involvement in an award. Is the appointed jury really independent, or does the main sponsor want to have a say as well?
“Will you be receiving dirty money when you’d win?”
Thirdly, ask yourself if you’d be willing to compromise your work for an award if the organization would require it. Especially politically sensitive work can find itself under pressure to conform to the agenda of jury members or sponsors. Let me call to mind the scandals around the work of Larissa Sansour or Newsha Tavakolian, who were either pushed out of a competition of threatened with censorship over their work.
Finally, in the case of major awards that will ask you to produce new work: find out if the budgets alloted for that are realistic, and what limitations are put on showing that work at different venues during the award procedure or afterwards. Consider if you want to produce new work on a shoestring budget that won’t even cover framing costs, and then not be allowed to capitalize on your latest work for a very long period, sometimes even a year. Ask yourself this: if a big budget organization gives you 4-5K euro to produce new work, how much value do you think they will put on your work and your position as an artist? It’s not unusual to see more money spent on PR and catering than on the competing photographers. Factoring this in, you could decline to participate in the race, or you could realize that you have some room to negotiate with the organization, for more budget, more freedom, more assistance.
Images by – Ali Taptik
What paid submission would you recommend people to participate in? What would be your advice for someone applying for a paid submission?
I’ve given a rough outline of the boxes that a festival or award should ideally tick. It’s really up to you to set the minimum number of boxes that have to be ticked before you consider applying.
Does it matter to you if the artist practices commercially?
No. People have to earn an income. It would be odd to discriminate them for it.
Do you feel there is a noticeable difference in quality for a free submission verses paid submission?
In general, no. Where it starts to matter, is where photographers have to pay extraordinarily high fees to participate in e.g. portfolio reviews. I’ve done such review sessions once or twice, and the photographers who can afford to come are actually the less interesting ones. Sometimes I sit across downright amateurs who make their money in other ways and love to have their work seen and recognized by ‘leading industry professionals’. That’s all fine, and I will do my duty as a reviewer, since that is what I’m paid for, but in the end it tends not to be very productive for either party.
Images by – Vendula Knopova
Through your experiences, are there certain opportunities that you would recommend others to avoid?
Any opportunity that seems to spend more time promoting itself than the photographers it claims to benefit.
Anything that is so expensive that attendance leaves you broke for months, with little chance to make any returns on your investment.
If you could be on a judging panel for one award / prize, which would it be?
Good question. Sometimes I allow myself to dream of initiating my own photography fund. Last year I wrote about this on my blog. I hope one day to turn this into a reality.