It is an inevitability that if you are an established photographer, photo editor, curator or commentator on photography with some level of visibility and profile that you will at some point be asked to judge a photography competition. Whether you say yes or no to this request is based on a series of considerations. Do you have the time, do you respect the competition and those involved with it and if you want to be associated with both.
Those of us who have been in this position also take on board the non-spoken understanding that we have been asked for a reason outside of our ability to make decisions concerning a photographic image. Apart from a few exceptions where the competition profile is greater than that of the judge, you will have been asked to be involved to add profile, respectability and perhaps an element of marketing to the venture. Just as your profile will benefit from being part of a prestigious panel of judges so will the competition’s. I have no problem with this and neither should the person entering the competition. Judges are rarely paid to be involved so there has to be some benefit in return for the time given.
Why am I spending so much time discussing the formulation of a judging panel? Simply because those judges are the key to you understanding which competitions to enter, what work to submit and why you have or have not been successful.
I have been involved in the judging of over fifty photographic competitions over the years from established behemoths such as the World Press Photo Awards, the Hasselblad Masters and RedBull Illume Awards to small start-ups organised by passionate individuals. The experience of judging has varied greatly but it would be fair to say that judging in 2015 falls into two distinct categories ‘online’ and ‘in-person’.
The majority of competitions these days are judged ‘online’. The judges never meet to discuss the work submitted, images are viewed and judged online in silos with a point system of varying sophistication. This process of judging is crude in its application (often a point system of between one and five gives little space for anything more than an ‘in’ or ‘out’). This initial process often leads to a series of rounds in which those with the highest scores stay in the game until the final choices are made. This process of judging has many downfalls but is easy to handle for the competitions who require international judges and entrants or are on limited budgets.
The main problem this process creates is the longevity of the mediocre image remaining in the competition for longer than it should ( or sometimes winning) do as it gains repeated middle range responses. In this process there is little space for the ‘maverick’ image succeeding. The love it or hate it image that may divide the judges has little chance of success without someone to fight its cause, which is almost impossible to do remotely.
This is not the case when judging ‘in-person’ where heated debates and passionate discussion informs every decision and the ‘maverick’ image can be battled for even if only as a special commendation outside of the main competition criteria. This for me is the best form of judging from both the judges and entrants perspective. As judges we get to share experience and knowledge, agree, disagree on work and bond as a group of people often from very different backgrounds and perspectives. As entrants your work benefits from this discussion and the possibility of more adventurous work being rewarded is higher.
Either way, whatever process of judging the competition chooses to adopt (and wouldn’t it be great if competitions made this clear in their entry details!) you must do your research on the judging panel before you decide to enter a photographic competition. Where do they work? Who do they work for and with? What is their work like? What are their influences and inspirations? All of these questions are vital for you to ask of each judge to understand what they are looking for and what they are not.
I have never been on a jury where the winning image does not fit the overall aesthetic profile of the judging panel. Many times I have fought for a ‘maverick’ or ‘rogue’ image to be included in a final judging that does not fit the perceived expectation of the particular competition (just ask my fellow judges and they will confirm this!) and rarely have I succeeded in anything more than an extended conversation as to why the image has not succeeded.
So how to succeed when entering photography competitions? How to not waste your submission fee? Well, there is no exact science to this but there is an obvious logic. Make sure that you research the judging panel, follow the guidelines for the competition carefully (if the images need to be uploaded make sure that the quality and size of the images is correct, if not your images will not be seen in their best light). Look at the work which has won in previous years and who judged that work. Finally be honest with yourself. Is the work as strong as previous winners, if this is a tough question to answer then ask some people whose opinion and knowledge you respect and is relevant to the specific competition.
If you are expected to submit finished prints then again follow the guidelines and submit the best quality print you can but be wary of submitting great quality prints of poor quality work (judges should be experienced when looking at photography and will have a high quality threshhold) and badly post-produced images that as digital files seem okay but are revealed as the work of an amateur when printed.
As with all areas of life understanding leads to informed decisions. There are many practical considerations to take into account when deciding if you are going to enter a photographic competition but at the end of the day the hope has to be that your work will be successful. When it comes to the apparent black art and closed room process that decides upon winning photography competitions understanding the people in those rooms who make the decisions as to who will win remains the most obvious and vital piece of advice I can give you. Only you know if you do this, you be the judge.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).
© Grant Scott 2015