Varsity Photo Competition – The Shortlist and Winners

We were inundated with beautiful photography for the Varsity photography competition. Prominent British photographer  Andrew Catlin, whose work is held in many galleries and collections including The National Gallery, chose a shortlist from which he decided the final winners.

Andrew Catlin’s thoughts on photography and tips for budding photographer…

There have been some strong submissions for the competition, which made it a tough job to choose.

The diversity has meant it would have been easy to have winners in several different categories: Landscape, Reportage, Wildlife, Portrait and Still Life are all well represented. Some pictures I liked were too adrift from the “Encounters” theme to select.

There is little objectivity in judging a photograph. In the end, it is a matter of what resonates most strongly on a personal level. If it were a democratic process, the winner would probably always be a picture of a dog or a cat. In my case, however, subjective privilege means I can select purely on the basis of my own predilections. This inevitably steers me towards portraiture and reportage, so apologies to those who entered landscape and still life images.

Pictures can work on many levels. Immediate impact works best for a picture that is intended for an editorial or advertising function, but such images also tend to lack depth.

For me a great photograph needs to have a sense of intrigue. There needs to be a reason to revisit it again and again. Unanswered questions that make further exploration of the image an imperative. Reinterpretation through imagination, consideration and connection. If a picture doesn’t have the depth to engage in these ways; if it doesn’t make you think and reflect, it may have great visual or emotional impact, but it is superficial.

Then, harmony or clash of colour, light and shade add dimensions that underpins the atmosphere of a picture.

A photographer must first see. An act of observation, study and recognition. Second, record. The act of composition, a feeling for light, interpretation. Thirdly, reflect. Consider in more depth the meaning of the image. Edit from a sequence; perhaps change the colour, density, contrast or light in the picture to adjust balance, weight and emphasis within the frame. Some photographers crop, others never do as a matter of principle.

It doesn’t matter. You must arrive at an image you continue to learn from long after it was taken. Something that draws you in and allows you to explore the dynamics of the situation you reacted to and recorded, perhaps quite instinctively, in greater depth.

“The contemplation of things as they are is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” (Francis Bacon)

A great portrait can provide considerable insight into the subject.

Properly observed the lines in a face, the tension and expression, tell a profound story about the character and history of a person, about their present situation, and even their future.

Thomas Carlyle observed that he ”… always found a portrait superior in real instruction to half a dozen written biographies….. or, rather let me say, I have found that the portrait was a small lighted candle, by which the biographies could for the first time be read.”

A great documentary image can present a unique view of a situation that may purely encapsulate it, reveal its meaning, or provide a completely new insight.

It is easy to use a photograph to misrepresent a scene. To create a fantasy or a distortion. But at its best, photography makes a direct connection to the event or the person observed. It is an act of perception, study and understanding. An act of empathy for the subject, and a feeling for the circumstances. A way to communicate what you saw and the way you saw it.

John Ruskin said that “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what he saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.”

That is what I look for in a scene, a face, a photograph.


Andrew Catlin is a prominent English photographer and filmmaker. He has worked extensively with NME; his photographs are featured on albums by Nick Cave, New Order,The Pixies, and many others. His prolific scope of work includes art direction, graphic design, documentary work, music videos and books. Many of his pieces are held in galleries and collections.