COLUMBIA — A hand trailing blood on a windshield, a boy in a superman suit reaching for his luggage from the metallic sheen of an airport carousel, the angelic corpse of a Haitian girl lifted by her community in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
These are just a few of the thousands of images that fill the silence and darkness of a tucked-away conference room at the MU School of Journalism during the judging of the Pictures of the Year International contest.
Judging began Feb. 16 for the 66th annual POYi contest. It will continue until March 6th.
"I always felt this contest is THE contest. It sets the standard in our industry quite well," said Brian Plonka, a freelance photographer and one of the four judges for POYi's first week.
The contest began at the Missouri School of Journalism in the early 1940s and has become one of the premier photojournalism competitions worldwide. Its initial purpose, stated by founder Cliff Edom, was to "provide an opportunity for photographers of the nation to meet in open competition; and to compile and preserve ... a collection of the best in current, home-front press pictures."
The entries form a collection of some of the most defining events of that year, and are a visual chronicle of important issues from contemporary society.
"It's worth it even if you're not in the photo industry because you're learning a bunch about what's going on in the world at the same time," said Jacqui Taljaard, a photography student at Northern Arizona University. Taljaard and two of her classmates traveled to Columbia for the week to view the judging process.
Brian Masck, POYi judge and photojournalist-in-residence at Western Kentucky University, described the power of images to help explain important events, social issues and trends in "ways that transcend languages and cultures."
One piece that stunned a couple of the judges was a set of twelve pictures, titled "Dark Addiction," that delved into the addictions of Appalachian coal miners to prescription pain medication. A variety of situations and individuals are tied together by one issue and aesthetic: a moody use of light and shadow portraying men moving through the dark spaces of their lives.
"I'm looking for surprises, for a photographer to take me places I haven't been," said Plonka, who was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year by POYi in 2002.
The three-week-long competition requires a new set of judges each week and a staff of graduate student coordinators and volunteers to sift through more than 45,000 images submitted by just under 1,700 individuals. With 48 total categories and 3 to 5 categories judged each day, the judging often extends from early morning to well into the night.
"It's physically exhausting, but I could go two more weeks of this ... It's professionally invigorating to see the kind of work we have been seeing," Masck said.
"You learn more than you ever could in any class," said Tim Martin, a photography student from Northern Arizona University.
The contest also reflects changes in the industry. More multimedia categories have been added in past years, with a new category for documentary project of the year, which recognizes groups and individuals that can publish their work apart from traditional news organizations.
The contest is also utilizing new Web technologies to make the judging available to a global audience. A link on the POYi Web site leads viewers from all over the world to a window where they can watch, live, the final judging sessions from each category. With 100 places available, the demand, in several cases, has been greater than the server could provide.
"We had no idea it would be as popular as it is," Shaw said.
The judging is free and open to the public. POYi resumes on Sunday in Tucker Forum of Gannett Hall with the Portrait category of the Magazine Story Division. An outlined judging schedule can be found at poyi.org/66/SchedulePOYi66.pdf.