Full disclosure : I have never won a photography competition.
But this is not some angry rant from a bitter photographer who's just pissed off he's never entered an image worthy of a win.
Rather, this is a rant from a photographer that's been entering photography competitions every year for the past 6 or 7 years.
The 2 main competitions I've entered have been the Focus annual competition and some of the Better Photography magazine competitions.
This will be a long read, so buckle in !
This year I've started thinking hard about why exactly I felt the need to enter my work into these competitions. And I've decided to write
this blog post to lay out my thoughts and perhaps make those of you who have never entered a competition to think hard about whether or not it's something that will tangibly benefit your photography journey. So this is my list of things you should consider before entering a competition :
1. COST. For the larger photography competitions there is generally an entry fee for each image you enter. From what I've seen online, this can range from $5 an image up to $20 an image. If you want to enter say 5 images, right at the start it can be a decent chunk of change to be handing over to an organisation you might actually know very little about.
Given the rise of large online competitions in recent years, I'm beginning to wonder if some of these competitions are really just money making exercises that really prey upon a lot of photographers need to be validated (which is fed by things like social media etc).
While I understand that any organisation running a competition obviously has to recover costs incurred by running it, I do wonder about how much profit they might be making after recovering those costs. Which leads me to my next point :
2. BENEFIT. I think this is the most important question you should ask yourself. What exact benefit is derived from entering your work in a photography competition ? You are basically paying to get someone's opinion on your work and how, potentially, it can be improved. But do you need to pay money to obtain that opinion ? And is the opinion of 1, 2 or 3 professional photographer's worth anything more than say a group on a photography forum ? Or a critique group on Facebook ? Over the years I have received a fair amount of feedback from judges on my work, and looking at it critically now, all of it could have been obtained from free critique groups, chat forums, YouTube videos etc.
I think the benefit aspect is also used heavily in the marketing of these competitions. "Want to improve your photography? Enter our competition and receive feedback from our judges on how to improve your images!". So, outside of the very temporary ego boost and a couple of days of online platitudes, the week after how has a win benefited your photography ? Are clients suddenly bashing on your door demanding prints because you're now an "award winning" photographer ? I would bet that most people who have purchased prints haven't started their search with only choosing someone who's won an award.
3. TRANSPARENCY. This is an issue that's been on my mind of late. Having been involved directly with the Focus awards this year, I've seen what goes on behind the scenes in running such a competition. While it's an amazing competition that is only put on due to a very small group of dedicated people, and full props to them for achieving what is an amazing awards night and prize pool, there are decisions being made in regards to entries, competition rules and discussions with the judges that most members aren't aware of. This has made me think about other online competitions. Do you know who the judges are ? Do you know how the judging is being conducted ? What experience do the judges have in assessing competition entries ? Because, just because you're a professional photographer, doesn't necessarily mean that makes you an excellent judge for photography competitions. Why ? How many judges are aware of their own internal personal biases and have the skills to ensure they don't impact on their scoring ?
Having read quite a few Terms & Conditions for various competitions, it's clear that generally they only pay cursory service to exactly how the competition is run and judged. For the larger competitions, take a second to think about how many entries they receive. Now think about how many judges have to view every single image. How long are they going to view your image ? 3 seconds ? 5 seconds ? Is that long enough to fully assess and judge your image ? Are you getting your money's worth ?
4. LEVEL PLAYING FIELD. Are you a local landscape photographer in Australia that doesn't have the money to travel interstate or overseas ? Then you should seriously consider whether or not the competition you're entering is truly fair to you. Some photographers may have saved up just to buy a semi pro camera body and 1 good quality lens, but don't have any funds left over for travel. They may produce some amazing imagery of Sydney or Melbourne, but going up against images shot in Iceland/Faroe Islands/Patagonia/Africa it can be hard to stand out among huge snow covered mountains and epic high jagged cliffs towering over the Atlantic ocean. While air travel has certainly become cheap and accessible for many, for some spending $10000 for a week long photography tour is simply out of their price range. So while you might bust your ass in a shitty job all year just so you can take 3 weeks off over xmas, someone else is taking multiple overseas holidays for weeks at a time shooting at the right time of the year to capture amazing images. This is why I think it's time that competitions made 2 landscape categories, one for local Australian images and one for international work. That way people who can't afford overseas travel at least have a change to compete on a local level, and maybe highlight just how amazing our own backyard can be.
5. MENTAL HEALTH. This is a subject I haven't seen anyone discussing, and I think it's high time that it was considered by everybody. This ties in with the impact of social media and the relentless pursuit of likes and validation. I think the current online photography culture has started to feed on the insecurities and egos of amateur photographers by convincing them that by entering a competition it will help them improve their work. The problem with this is that when someone who's heavily invested in the images they've created enters and doesn't do well, the impact on the result can be emotionally damaging and discouraging. Given the financial and time investment in capturing a special image, it's completely understandable that you can get very attached to a particular image and thus it's only natural that you may have a visceral reaction when it doesn't score well.
I think this is something that judges should start considering, particularly when judging amateur competitions. Perhaps they need to remember what it was like when they first started out, and how it felt when they received particularly negative feedback on their work. The risk is that if someone who is already susceptible to mental health issues like depression enters a competition expecting some sort of result and doesn't, it may be a catlyst for them to be impacted far greater than expected. In my opinion it's too easy to brush this off as people being overly sensitive, or that they shouldn't take feedback personally and instead take it on board, but this is not someone's school report or 6 monthly performance appraisal, this is someone's art.
Should people be personally responsible for their own mental health? Absolutely. Are they always 100 percent aware of what impacts their actions are having on their own mental health? Absolutely not. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect organisations running competitions to consider this and if they are providing feedback (however generic) to take this issue under consideration. Some good expectation management at the start of the competition would probably help alleviate some negative push back after the results are released.
At the end of the day, no one who's purchased a print of my work, either large or small, has started the conversation with "so how many awards have you won?". So back to the starting point, think long and hard before entering a photography competition. And ask yourself WHY on top of all the points I've raised above.
Over to you, what has been your experience entering photography competitions ? If you don't enter any, why not ? Leave a comment below ! :)