Its almost a template newcomers to photography follow. You give it a shot (photography) and become smitten. Who wouldn’t? You shoot voraciously and you love your pictures, you think they’re great. Of course you do; your friends and family praised your posts on the social networks. You think your pictures deserve greater recognition and they’re good enough to haul in a prize at a competition so you take a shot (the competition). Nothing happens and you wonder why your pictures weren’t deemed good enough to even receive a nod.
To be clear, there’s likely nothing wrong with your pictures. And your family and friends aren’t delusional either. The fact that you enjoy shooting, viewing and sharing your pictures is testament enough to their worth. Yet this is specifically what you surrender when you throw your pictures into the mixer hoping they get noticed in a competition.
Photography competitions have a way of seducing us with promises; win money, get exposure, become famous and feel like the best thing since sliced bread. And there’s no wonder it works, these are all great things; money, fame, sliced bread. But, I have news for you. As great as they seem, two of these three promises are grossly over-rated and sliced-bread is a very hard act to follow. I myself once followed the template thinking until I started asking myself the difficult questions.
“for the money they charge they’re effectively peddling in hopes and dreams.”
Its important that every photographer, especially at the enthusiast and amateur levels, come to terms with their own realistic goals for their photography. Why am I doing this and what do I hope to get out of this? Or, a more important question, what is photography to me? Speaking personally, there was a very brief period in my life where I wanted to shift my photography from being a hobby to being a profession. And of course, I thought that one way to get there was to win a major competition and get some of that exposure stuff they promised. Gladly, this was just a phase.
For me today, photography is something I practice as a means of observation, discovery and a sort of societal archiving. Street photography is the best way I know to truly explore, observe and discover a people and a place while leaving our future world an honest look at life in this time. I don’t care to make money from my photography, I don’t care if I remain the most obscure photographer in the history of the craft and I don’t care to wear the accolade of award-winning photographer. I am concerned with making honest records of ordinary life in my time for the small handful of people out there who are interested in seeing it, though mostly, for myself.
So, confessions aside, let’s consider competitions.
A Little About Competitions
There is hardly a photography competition out there that’s free to enter; competitions cost money. And for the money they charge they’re effectively peddling in hopes and dreams. At the most fundamental level they’re selling you a chance to get your work seen in the hope that someone, or a panel of someones thinks its great relative to the work of others. There are many issues with this as a model for finding worth and getting feedback.
Competitions, especially international ones, attract entrants by the thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands. A handful of judges parsing thousands of images in the space of a few weeks mean that your images don’t really get that much viewing time. It also means that in order for your work to stand out in the eyes of a judge, it has to really strike an impression. This in itself gives you a goal to work towards: creating strong and stand-out work. But if you’re pursuing this goal in the context of winning a competition you ought to do so acknowledging that judging is highly and sometimes controversially subjective. Every person views the world with their own collection of biases. Subjecting your work to the judging process is hoping that their biases and impressions of what constitutes a great image coincides or aligns with yours. You’re asking the judge to appreciate the beauty you saw in a particular scene even though that judge views the same captured scene through different eyes and likely subscribes to a different style.
Competitions can sometimes auto-filter out the majority of their entrants solely on the unfair bases of time and geography. In addition to making money from entrants, competitions also need to market themselves as prestigious. Marketing themselves allows them to attract more entrants in future and of course make more money. One of the ways they do this is by keeping the appearance of relevance with the times and connection to real-time events. Images which carry associations to the hot media topics of the day would naturally float closer to the top for the picking. Your chances of getting noticed are thus inherently better if your entry covers, let’s say race riots (a hot topic in the US today), than if your submission was themed around, let’s say tourism in your seaside village in Thailand. Especially for competitions which publish winners to the news media and photography magazines, relevance and in-touch with the climate of the day count significantly in selecting winners.
There are also times when competitions resemble a black box of sorts; the guidelines and judging criteria are either not stated or only vaguely so. Then when the results are announced you realize that based on the type of pictures selected your pictures had no chance of winning. Competitions are not very transparent. Therefore, the one type of competition I would endorse entering, and even paying a reasonable price for entry, would be the ones which, at the very least, give feedback on your submission and what you can do to improve your work. One of the most useful pieces of advice I received concerning my work came as competition feedback. In retrospect though, aligning myself with a street photography community would have given me the same advice for free that I had to pay the price of entry to receive from the competition judges.
A Better Way
Focus on creating a consistent and coherent body of work — this was the advice referenced earlier. Whether this body of work clusters around a place, a time, a culture, a group or even an individual, explore it thoroughly in your images and let this be the goal you dedicate your energy to. When you shoot with competition in mind you’re only looking for the great and stand-out images that have a chance of winning. You’re also hoping to compress your theme or story into the number of images restricted by the competition rules, usually 3–5 per submission. The fact is that it takes a good mix of images, subtle and jarring, wide and up-close to really tell the story of a people, place, person or culture etc. There were many images I myself shot and rejected because I thought they were boring and would not get noticed in a competition. Yet when I sat down years later and started thematically arranging my work I realized that my body of work was incomplete without many of these boring images.
Make it a project and build it one image at a time if you have to. As the months and years roll by you will begin to see the body of work take shape and this is where the reward lies. Think of it like assembling a jigsaw puzzle; each individual puzzle piece is an image of its own cut out of the big picture. It takes time to put it together but somewhere in the process you begin to see that big picture taking shape and it drives you to keep finding those individual pieces that bring it closer to completion. Over time you also begin noticing which pieces are missing guiding you to where you need to spend more time shooting. Being part of a community, a photography group or even a forum can also help you identify these gaps in your project and provide direction when you feel stuck.
“Its about holding up a mirror to your world and a looking glass into what will one day be its past.”
Package your work and show it. There are different ways to do this. Personal or joint exhibitions are both effective at showing your work and personally rewarding. Your chances of getting exhibited though, are better if you have built your project around a specific theme that’s relevant to the exhibition target audience in some way. Photo books are another option; whether adopted by a major publisher or self-published. The photo book is one of the most enduring packages you can put out to the world and print-on-demand services like Blurb have placed the product within anyone’s reach. Even if you produce a photo book of your work for your own personal satisfaction, I believe every serious amateur photographer owes it to themselves to do this. Once you’ve created and edited your body of work and brought it to completion, encapsulating it in book form is cathartic and I assure you much better than that sliced-bread feeling.
Competitions on the whole, of any sort, appeal to one of the most basic human desires: To stand out from the other seven billion humans we share this planet with. The things they promise us are precisely the things we want; we want to get noticed and perhaps get paid for it. I honestly don’t mean to get all Charlie Pride about this, but there really is no better way to build a fulfilling body of work than doing what you do just for the love of it.
I don’t ever expect to take my old box of family or childhood photos and show them to the world hoping that they win a competition or gain me international acclaim. Yet, these are photos I can sit and stare at for hours. They have immeasurable worth to me. Competitions are a terrible way of appending worth to your work. Competitions pigeon-hole you into only seeing the value of your work relative to the work of others when instead it should be capable of standing on its own.
As a photographer, you live for the beauty of discovery and the joy of sharing it. This is not about making pictures that are better than anyone else’s; its about holding up a mirror to your world and a looking glass into what will one day be its past.