Events, dear boy, events: why NZ Geographic moved off the page with Photographer of the Year

There are plenty of harrowing numbers facing the magazine industry at the moment. But, as the proponents say, magazines are more than just paper. And New Zealand Geographic’s Photographer of the Year is a case in point. 

Last week, New Zealand Geographic editor James Frankham sent out 20,000 emails to people who had come through the magazine’s Photographer of the Year competition and left their email address. Not a bad way to build a database. 

Each had been left by people who voluntarily attended the event, enjoying it so much they bothered to vote for their favourite photograph and leave their email address to find out who won.

Frankham let them know after the winners were announced at the sixth annual New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year competition, which he founded when he started at the magazine.

“I came on board as editor in 2008 and decided that the magazine needed some activity off the page, something that was going to really engage readers both physically and on a more social level. Because photography is such a big part of the magazine it was the obvious place to start.”

Since the competition started it has grown significantly, now receiving about 3,400 entries per year, and this year it had more than 29,000 people through the exhibition, which showed in Auckland and Christchurch.

He’s a real believer that events can add real value to magazines, particularly in a climate where the future of print is regularly called into question. 

“Magazines can branch out to many more channels than just print – it’s that engagement off the page and social participation which is really valuable.”

Branching into events that get people talking, walking and voting in no way devalues the traditional print product, he says. Instead, it supports it (the magazine’s circulation in the last survey was 10,861 average net paid, compared to 11,590 in 2012 and it also extended further into the realm of photography with the launch of the bi-monthly Pro Photographer in 2013). 

“Working outside of print but having other channels that are participatory and that people can be involved in in a different or a social way doesn’t devalue the print offering. The print magazine is still the cornerstone of the enterprise, and if anything it makes the print element stronger because it’s the nail that everything’s lashed down to.” 

While the free exhibition is not a money-maker, the sheer number of people it engages sustains the magazine in ways that are hard to quantify. And the magazine has been able to grow the event through support from sponsors like Nikon, Tamron and Resene and local councils.

“It’s far from being a profitable event but it washes its own face, it’s really good for branding and awareness. We believe it’s really effective at getting the message out but it’s hard to measure how or when they subscribe,” Frankham explains.

Christchurch City Council supported the event this year as part of its Transitional Cities project to reinvigorate the CBD. The photographs were displayed in Cathedral Square in what Frankham calls “a lighthouse for visual arts”.

One of the winning images was from photographer Peter Quinn. 

Wearing a feathered korowai (cloak), a Tuhoe man stands pensive, holding a bible palm-up in his right hand.

Behind him, next to the lacy net curtains covering off the dark behind, an ace of hearts playing card is tucked into battered weatherboard.

This image of New Zealand life, along with three others, won Quinn the accolade of 2014 Photographer of the Year.

“In each image Peter stacks up layers of competing ideas. They are well- composed and visually simple expressions of the foundations of life in New Zealand,” Frankham says.

Quinn’s other photos include a picture from a club on K Road, a Maori couple in kapa haka gear pushing a pram through a car park, and fishermen at work.

As for the other categories, Brett Phibbs won society and culture, Denis Radermacher won landscape, Greg Bowker won wildlife and Tim Watters won photostory. Edin Whitehead took out the Young Photographer award and Alison Perkins took the Colour Award. The People’s Choice Award—which received a total of more than 36,000 public votes cast at the exhibition and online—went to Kelly Wilson for her image of Kaimanawa horses. 

The competition received 3,400 entries this year, and it was in some places controversial.

“Some of the images are universally delightful, others have proved wildly controversial, but all of them elicit a response, whether that be charm, awe, horror or the simple feeling of recognition that wells up on seeing a true, clear reflection of an aspect of this country that we love,” Frankham says.

Some of the more controversial images included Watters’ documenting the work of three Sea Shepherd vessels sent to disrupt the work of Japanese whalers in the Ross Sea.

Aerial photos showing blood-smeared ships and the bodies of whales aboard Japanese fishing vessels are visually assaulting.

Another bloody image of a speared striped marlin was also controversial, Frankham says.

“We feature difficult pictures in New Zealand Geographic regularly,” says Frankham. “Challenging public assumptions about the nature of our environment and society has been at the core of the magazine’s philosophy for 25 years. Images that create the opportunity for those conversations to take place are what this competition is all about.”

  • Check out all the winners and finalists here

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