Can books with photos win awards?

A few weeks ago, Jason and I were chatting about the upcoming American Library Association annual awards and got into a discussion of two 2010 titles in particular, Sharing Our Homeland and ¡Olé! Flamenco. Both are technically eligible in a number of categories, but have photographs instead of illustrations. Can picture books with photos ever really win awards?

from Ole Flamenco
from ¡Olé! Flamenco

Children’s Librarian Extraordinaire Betsy Bird asked this very question a few weeks back with regard to the Caldecott, and noted that although there’s nothing in the criteria that disqualifies picture books with photographs, they just never seem to win. In fact, in the 72 years since the Caldecott began, there’s never been a winner or honor book with illustrations comprised of only photos.

I wondered whether this trend held true for other ALA awards  that don’t technically outlaw photographs, and it turns out that it did, though not to the Caldecott extreme. Last year’s Coretta Scott King illustrator award went to Charles R. Smith Jr.’s My People, a book of photographs, but it was the only CSK in the last 10 years to do so. Likewise, there was only one Pura Belpré illustrator award in the last 10 years given to a book of photography: George Ancona’s Barrio: José’s Neighborhood.

I’m actually a little surprised that this trend held for the more cultural-specific ALA awards like the CSK (African-American) and Belpré (Latino), since those awards put a special emphasis on “cultural authenticity.”

from Sharing Our Homeland
from Sharing Our Homeland

This can be conveyed in illustrations as well as photographs, but I think there’s something particularly poignant in seeing photographs of a living culture instead of illustrations, especially when it’s a culture that’s been traditionally marginalized/ made invisible by mainstream media. It’s powerful to look at a photograph of a face in a picture book and be able to think to yourself, That beautiful person looks just like me.

So why the lack of photo-essays among award winners? Is it just a lack of options? Are photographs considered “easier” than illustrations? Or do people just relegate photography books to the nonfiction awards and leave it at that? I’m not sure, so if anyone’s got an inkling about this, do weigh in!

3 thoughts on “Can books with photos win awards?”

  1. I think there needs to be an artistry to the photographs. Not only does the subject matter need to be compelling, but the method used for photographing it needs to be, too. If, for example, the photos are of subject matter a Latina girl may see in one day, shown as if from the girl’s eyes, that could be cool…maybe with relevant poetry accompanying the photos. Just thinking “out loud” here.

    Anyway, I don’t think the awards organizations are purposely leaving out books with photos…the awards folks just haven’t seen a photo book that speaks to them, yet. Good luck finding one for them!

  2. I agree with Anita above. If the photographs are creative, expressive, and technically singular, they deserve to be considered right along with illustrations.

    Jed Henry
    Illustrator of New York Times Bestseller CAN’T WAIT TILL CHRISTMAS

  3. I am glad, that you are addressing the issue, as it is one… As soon as photographs are used, the illustrations are not seen as such. Even if the pictures have an “artistry” to them. After showing my book-projects to a lot of traditional publishers, who loved them, but found the technique too “daring” to publish – I decided to start my own publishing company to be able to use photography in my illustrations…
    Hope this gets the discussion going,

    Tanja Dekker, author of Phanhabs Lush Bush and founder of twikga Verlag

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