Thursday, 2 September 2021

A new IAPLC: what has really changed?

Another year has passed by, and as traditionally, this August we had got the chance to see the aquascaping works that made it to the IAPLC top 100 of this edition.

For those who did not, you can watch the entire streaming event in YouTube in the following link.

In this occasion, the community was paying more attention than ever to the contest. But not much for the excitement of the new works -which each year triggers lot of hype-, rather than closely monitoring the behaviour of the organisation. There are a few reasons for it, but mainly linked to the following aspects: (a) a change of the general rules of the contest; (b) a change in the selection of judges; (c) a need to reconsider the evaluation criteria.

In this article, we review a few of those aspects, starting from why such changes were required, and then reviewing how this has impacted the results of this year.

Why IAPLC rules change this year?

If you are one of those following closely the IAPLC and contests, you will not be alien to the events that took place last year. If not, I recommend you to read this entry. But, in a nutshell, there were reported cases  of what some people considered fraud/cheating, or what others interpreted as customary editions, of some of the photos sent to the contest. This would not be breaking news (happens quite often in many contests) if not because of some of those works made it to the top 100, and even to the top 5.

The works that breached the rules were spotted in a local contest authorised by ADA, and in their morale duty, the organisers reported it, and from there, some other people informed to IAPLC, as the same works were presented in both contest. This is allowed by the rules of ADA (authorised contest only) but photo edition is not permitted, beyond some general adjustments (contrasts, colour balance...). The authors of such works failed to provide evidence of no-edition, whereas the contest organisers showed the analysis of Photoshop experts and photography edition, indicating the forgery. The reporters hoped for ADA rectifying the rankings correspondingly, or at least disqualifying the participants who breached the rules.

However, this was not the case. All messages sent got the same reply: that ADA was not accepting comments on the results of the contest. In other words, they did not plan to change the ranking nor disqualify the faulty participants. This decision was considered harsh and unfair for and by many hobbyist and fans, as it was detrimental to the participants who put their entries at play following the rules.

According to some, ADA reacted this way because of they had already the booklets with the results in the press, and committed already significant resources of the organisation (perhaps even paid the awards to winning works). As indicated in the entry I cited at the start of this section, even own ADA rules stated at the time that works breaching the rules, even if doing so after publication of the results, would be disqualified. Which they did not.

It is a bit difficult to accept such decision, but, unfortunately, ADA has not been traditionally transparent in such things, and no answer or justification was given to the community beyond a shy "let's try to avoid this in the future and let's move forward as community", along a promise to review the rules and improve next year. This was the solely announcement  made by ADA through their dedicated IAPLC Facebook page, which by the way, has been quietly removed and no longer exists. They also erased the critic comments from some of the posts they had on the results of 2020 in their commercial page. Of course, they could not erase that one, so they just removed what they did not like. They are in their commercial rights to do so, but perhaps not as much ethically...

Nevertheless, this was not just the only thing that raised the wraith of the masses. Other aspects have been criticised for years, but the last year were added on top of the havoc created for the cheating. Some of the historical claims to ADA was to incorporate to the contest renown aquascapers or professionals of the aquascaping world to evaluate the works (ADA used more or less a semi-fixed list of judges coming from aquarium journals and brands). Other was a more clear explanation of the evaluation process. Scoring system has been also challenged a few times, as it is a non-linear system. More objective evaluation criteria is also a common complain. Or even separation into categories (as is, all works presented to IAPLC fall in one single category, with no consideration to sizes or types).

What did change in the IAPLC?

Even if it is true that ADA did not react as many expected from them, at least we must give them that they tried to improve the things. 

They did an effort to make the rules clearer and explicit (read them in the following link, which includes a starting note about the events of the last year, rather succinct, I must warn you).

They also did an statement on the IAPLC website that you can find here. An excerpt is found below, which shows that ADA took notice of the events happened last year:

We believe that it is best for each and one of every applicant to comply with the rules and apply for the contest in order for us to operate and keep the IAPLC healthy and enjoyable for everyone. Moreover, due to the impact of social media in recent years, in some cases, violations of the rules are found after results are announced, causing confusion. The IAPLC Steering Committee will do our very best for the IAPLC to be supported by all the aquarists around the world and recognized as a meaningful contest.
We appreciate your kind understanding and cooperation.

The IAPLC Steering Committee

They emphasized the need to respect the rules, not only there and then, but also almost as first item of the IAPLC results announcement video (watch the minute 6:50 to 7:35 in the Youtube video I linked). If you watch the video, you will notice is the only time the two presenters do not smile in the entire hour. This is probably the closest thing to a reaction we may expect, but that they mentioned it a few times and in different places, highlights they got worried about the issues last year and took it seriously. Kudos.

But more things changed, even if some were subtle. This year, they announced as winning works only the first 100 top entries, rather than the traditionally 127. Why in the past was 127 and now 100? I have no idea, but 127 was always an odd number to me. Equally, they have shaped the layers within such 100 works, with 17 Honour Pizes (instead of 20) and 73 Winning Works (instead of 100).

You can see the top 100 works from this edition, and most of the works from previous editions here.

More importantly, they took in consideration some of the historical claims from the community (not all of them, unfortunately). To start with it, they changed the judge composition. They had this year 10 judges, of which 4 are reputed within the aquascaping community. Whereas because they do aquascaping or because they work in that specific sector of the aquarium community. This was an improvement, even if still could be better.

Still, it had impact. Those of us who regularly monitor the contest, we know that some years there have been intruders in the classification: works that clearly were overrated, or works clearly underrated. This year, watching and taking some time to gauge the top 100 works, I do not have such feeling, and I see a more clear gradation in terms of quality from number 1 to 100, without strange anomalies. For those who also checked this, please, wait to read the next lines below before saying "I do not agree with you". 

Moreover, and not written or announced, but the evaluation criteria changed. Not in terms of what factors you can score with. But how those factors were actually scored. This is clear from the top 100 selected works of this year. Three things are obvious to me:
  1. They reinforced the fact that this an "Planted Layout" contest, i.e. this year bothering in having significant amounts of plants, and plants beyond mosses, counted for a lot. Some works, with excellent hardscaping but poorly planted, were severely impacted in the scoring (sorry for that, Steve). Some people that did not work as hard as in the past in the hardscape, but did a better planting, got better than expected (there you go, Josh).
  2. They also penalized the works that, even if stunning, they did not have a natural feeling or composition. There they go those tremendous designs of alien more FX accepted, using mirrors or other stuff of the likes).
  3. It was not a decisive factor but using a variety of colours in plants also counted.

These changes resulted that works where the hardscape was the main point in detriment of the plants, show themselves in worse positions than they would have found in previous years, and those aquariums with a relatively less worked hardscape but better planted, getting better results than they could expect. Two good examples are the works from Josh Sim and Steven Chong, respectively:

"Embrace" by Josh Sim, 2021.

"Silent Pool" by Steven Chong, 2021.

The first work ended in ranking 6, whereas the second in ranking 37. For me, both works are extraodrinary, but the work from Steven shows clearly a significant larger dedication to the hardscape and overall composition than to the plants. The work from Josh is more chaotic and less organised but really shows a work in the planting. "Silent Pool" is a great idea and concept, but when you compare both layouts side to side, one can see very well that Josh masters the planting and trimming, whereas Steven has still a way to go in his work in those matters. It is not the only reason, though. There is a natural feeling in "Embrace" that is not present in "Silent Pool", and it is not that Steve did not capture the sub-alpine freshwater rivers has to do with the photo. I have the impression Steven stretched too much the contrast, to enhance the difference between shadows and highlights, and give in this way more relevance to his choice of white colours in his layout. This setup of the camera or the legal post-adjustment, it really degrades the resulting image. It is long too dark in the shadows, too bright in the white areas. And the image is hard to interpret: many people has confused his whitened woods with coventional wood having white sand on top! For me, this is the best indicator of why Josh got 8, and Steven 37: if you have to explain what it is, it means you did not manage to express the concept properly. Nevertheless, I would even dare to say Steven should be thankful: with the apparent "deficiencies" he still made it up to 37! A good position many people would "kill" for.

All in all, in my opinion, all these changes in the evaluation have brought a better contest, even if things can still improve. In my way, I am far happier with the results this year than previous years since Amano left us. So, even if with some criticism, congrats ADA. You are starting to listen. Please, continue doing so.

And what did change in the participants?

Well, if the changes in ADA and the IAPLC could be more obvious, the changes in the participants are less so. But a good eye can spot them.

For me, the main one is kind of hilarious... this year, the fish in the photos...are moving and blurry in many top jobs! C'mon guys...really? So what happened this time? Fish had a sudden and bursting need to move faster than previous years? Or composite photos are no longer a trend? I am not meaning this was not the case in the past, but it is obvious that this year fish have movement...not always all aligned in the group, not always in the focus...well, what it is normal if you tried at least once. Forget all that stories about using a laser pointer or feeding the fish in the same location...they may help, but they do not give you fish fully aligned and static but by chance, at least in those schooling species in larger numbers. This is easier to achieve with larger fish like Altum, Gourami, or Discus, which are slower and you need to convice less of them to align. But it is very hard to achieve with most smallest species.

Excerpt from "Origin. Dawn light" by Juan Puchades. Fish are blurry, moving...and...natural!

Previous years, there was a good number of works with fish in a perfect synchrony, alignment and full definition, as if they were almost pasted on top of the image of the aquarium (oh, wait...), rather than naturally embedded in the scene. Thanks for that guys, much appreciated. I think now all these contestants that are not professionals of the photography (or cannot pay them), had a slightly better chance. Or at least was more fair to them in the evaluation. But for me, these photos with fish not aligned always, at differet planes, and a bit blurry, transmit far more sensations of nature than those photos that could be out of any advertising company.

The other thing one could notice was the overall style of choice. In first place, the famous Nature Aquarium is , with no doubt, in progressive decline. Less and less entries using this technique are seen in the top 100 (or 127, depending on year).  Diorama technique is imposing its rule in the community. The reason is evident: the balance between difficulty for implementing a diorama vs creating  a Nature Aquarium -for the same composition-, is far less, and the errors that would be obvious in a NA aquarium, can be better hidden in the diorama style. For me, this is one aspect behind this progressive evolution. Josh Sim almost nailed it in the introduction to his seminar at Green Aqua in 2019, which you can watch here

I have some different view on how classify aquascaping styles (which I will detail in a different post) but he is totally right when he defends what he calls "wild" style as a manner to create better aquariums in an easier manner. But this is why Amano was a master of NA, and the rest of us we have still way to go to match him... 

More striking aspetcs of this year: it seems that the sunken tree was the motive of IAPLC 2021. Many aquscapers used that type of composition for their works. I do not think this is just a trend within the community, rather than the impact of the judges's preferences in compositions. I think they favoured this type of layout this year. But let´s not assume next year will be the some judges also change between years, preferred compositions also do. Even so, for so many works of this type to make it to the top 100 (the only ones seen by the 10 judges), it means they were a significant fraction of all submitted works. That, or ADA pre-screening had some particular rules, of which, of course, we have no infomation about.

"Ancient Tree" by Yoyo Prayogi. Grand Prize work IAPLC 2021.

And my final comment on this, relates to other element that was in a fashion this year: shadows. Lots of them. So many that probably this was the darker IAPLC I can remember. And there is a responsible for this: again, the seminar from Josh Sim in Green Aqua I indicated previously. He made a strong point that shadows are critical for a better scoring in contests, due to the impact and feelings they cause in the spectator. Sure, I do agree: masters of the painting, like Goya, Velzquez or Vermeer, they mastered the use of shadows in contrast to the light, winning the attention of the observer. Amano already emphasized their importance, but I think Josh's seminar has been very influential for the works presented in this year. Nevertheless, let´s not forget that there were masters of the light, too. Like Sorolla, Rembrandt, or Turner.


In summary, I really feel this year has been special. Between other things, I see that top ranked works are closer each other as ever, and the scoring seems fair and more related to what the contest is about, and not just about creating impact with impossible hardscapes. This is of course, just my opinion, but as close follower of the contest and events for aquascaping, I really feel a breeze of fresh air in a contest that was adrift. The works of this year are, in my opinion, at more distance from Nature Aquarium as ever, but closer to Nature than in the last 5 years. Good job to all the participants, and all those who have been part of a fantastic IAPLC this year. Thanks for all your work and creations!

Congratulations to all the participants. It is the first time I really look forward the next year's works. If we keep up with the changes, it will be an awesome year for aquascaping. But only time will tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment