FEATURE: Discovering how a picture speaks a thousand words

Last year's winner Blue Bench by Sue Barnes
Last year's winner Blue Bench by Sue Barnes
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LAST year hundreds of photographs were entered in a competition to find the best image of The Stade. This year the contest is back with a new theme: Stade Stories. Observer reporter RICHARD MORRIS met head judge and professional photographer Grace Lau to find out how to scoop first prize.

THESE days everyone secretly considers themselves a half-decent photographer. Digital cameras and their fancy settings have enabled even the most inartistic of us to come back from our holidays armed with a dazzling array of sunset shots and a veritable portfolio of carefully constructed (and edited) images to show (see: bore) our friends and relatives.

However, opening your collection up to a professional - complete with critical eye - can be more daunting. Putting it forward for exhibition even more so.

That is what my bosses at the Observer asked me to do as part of this year’s Stade Stories competition.

As a budding but amateur in every sense of the word photographer, I like to think I have the basics. I studied the subject at college and know how to frame a shot, where to position the subject and a few other tricks of the trade. Or rather I thought I did.

It turns out there is a lot more to taking a snap you are happy to show around the office to one a gallery is happy to hang on its walls.

Booked in for a 15-minute slot with Grace Lau at the Fishermen’s Museum in the heart of The Stade, I make the mistake of casually picking up a few shots my wife had printed from our recent holiday in New York as examples of my work.

The first two - a pair of close-ups of tiger cubs - are dismissed as ‘cute’. Never has such a usually endearing word cut so quickly to the core.

Another - a close-up of some street art in Soho, NYC, is overlooked. I am beginning to feel like a fraud. And a time-wasting one at that.

However, Grace gets a little more excited over a picture of a busy Times Square. Remarkably, it seems she actually likes it. “This one is good,” she says, much to my relief - feeling, like I do, as if I am sitting an exam - more a result of my nerves than Grace’s approach which is welcoming and constructive.

“It shows the chaos of the city and the fact it does not have a definite subject adds to it.” Things are on the up.

A photograph I was genuinely pleased with and even considering framing for my lounge wall is next. By the time Grace finishes showing me how, with nothing more than a new crop, the photo could be made a millions time better, I think I am getting the hang of it.

In fact, I almost feel ready to take on the Stade Stories challenge. Almost. I have come for tips and tips I shall get.

So what should people do when setting out to get their photographs for the contest? According to Grace, preparation is as key as imagination.

“It is good to have an idea about what you are after before you head out,” she explains. “You don’t want to just do the tempting thing of taking as many photographs as you can.

“Pick a subject, like fish and chips or ice creams, and go out and focus on that.

“Also, think about your attitude to your chosen subject and what you want to say about it and don’t be afraid to stage your images - get friends to pose or dress up if it helps illustrate your story.”

As the competition title suggests, the idea of story is key. Grace says she hopes to see people pushing a few boundaries rather than re-hashing the more traditional images of seaside life.

She suggests I dress someone as a mermaid. I like the idea. I imagine my wife - the only person likely to agree to help out - would find it less appealing.

Nevertheless, the point is valid.

“People should take risks in their photography process, experiment and interpret stories about The Stade, and go beyond just aesthetically pleasing still-life pictures which may look ‘nice’ but do not engage the audience to imagine stories that extend outside the picture-frame.”

It might sound a mouthful but the message is clear: Give the person looking at the picture a starting point from which to use their own imaginations. Hint at more than just the contents of your picture.

“The memorable images,” Grace continues, “are the ones that make an audience think and question, and cause ripples of disturbance or pleasure, through the photographer’s own concept, whether addressing a social issue or documenting an event or interpreting the world as he or she sees it.”

So, not just a nice shot of a fishermen then? “Definitely not,” Grace reacts. “Please no fishing nets, no fishing boats, no ropes, no fishing huts.”

Last year’s winner, Blue Bench by Sue Barnes (pictured), is a tough act to follow but organisers are hopeful of more quality entries. Hastings, apparently, is becoming something of a hot bed for photographic talent. “Hastings is seeing an exciting and expanding photography scene to rival that generated by Brighton’s high-profiled art community,” reveals Grace.

But, says the judge, that should not put off anyone from entering - regardless of their experience - or equipment.

“The competition is not about who can use Photoshop best or who has the best camera - it is about taking time to frame a good shot which makes people think and feel.

“You have just as much chance of winning entering on a disposal camera as you do any other. Hopefully as many people as possible will enter and the panel and I will have a really difficult task when judging.”

Entry is £3 per photograph – to be paid in cash at the Fishermen’s Museum, or cheque made payable to The Fishermen’s Museum - and photographers can enter up to three images ranging from A5 to A3 in size.

Photographs must be unmounted and unframed and submitted in an envelope clearly labelled Stade Stories, with each image labelled on the back with name, address, postcode, email address, phone number and title of the work.

The competition closes at 2pm on Sunday, July 24.

Photographs should be submitted to the Fishermen’s Museum, Rock-a-Nore Road and must have been taken after January this year on or of The Stade.