Why Do Photo Competitions Exist?

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To answer this question let’s start off by accepting that there are two very specific types of photo competition and a hybrid that sits somewhere slightly uncomfortably between the two. The first consists of established competitions. Competitions that are well structured, respected and result in physical exhibitions that attract huge crowds both nationally and internationally. Their rules are clearly defined, they require a payment to enter and perhaps most importantly their submission date is fixed. The exhibitions they create from the entrants and winners work promote photography to a mass audience and raise debates about how photography is judged, seen and engaged with in the 21st century. Interestingly they are often financed through sponsorship from financial institutions or wealthy benefactors. I don’t have a problem with this kind of competition although the lack of transparency in the judging process by some does lead to accusations of an elitist attitude to both the entrants and the work selected.  

The second category is the hybrid competition most often started by brands associated with photography, such as magazines, associations, manufacturers and agencies. These competitions tend to rely on offering exposure of work to an informed/important jury or juror and online/in-print exposure of your work if you are lucky enough to win. Occasionally they may also offer some form of physical incentive. They usually require a fee to enter and perhaps most controversially feel that it is both acceptable and appropriate to extend deadlines for submissions without giving any explanation as to why! It is these competitions that tend to evoke the ire of many photographers.

This is most often due to their easy-going attitude to extending submission deadlines. To many this seems to indicate that the competition has either not secured enough entries and therefore not raised enough money or that the brand isn’t happy with the quality of the images submitted and therefore fulfilling their commitment to providing exposure to work alongside their brand. This behaviour is most prevalent in competitions hosted by magazines and associations and demonstrates the most disrespectful attitude to those who enter in time for the original submission date.

Interestingly, whilst writing this article two competitions announced the exciting news that their submission dates where to be extended via Twitter. One, a photography magazine claimed that the reason for this was ‘heavy traffic’ whatever that means – this is the second time in a matter of months this magazine has extended its submission dates but only the first time they have given this excuse – and the second gave no reason. I questioned both. The magazine gave no response, the second did respond with the honest answer that they wanted more entries to raise more money for the charity they were supporting. No one can argue against the importance of a charity receiving much needed financial support, however the honest answer brings into the open that money is the true deciding factor in the decision to extend a submission date.

The reason for the third category of competition to exist is obvious and that is to make money, grab data and copyright of images. There, I’ve said it! We all know it and many people accept the reality of that situation, so what more is there to say? Well, be careful and ensure you read even the smallest, small print before entering such competitions. Make sure you understand the usage implications and question them openly if possible to raise issues that others may have missed.

So why do photography competitions exist? Well, some to raise money for and the profile of important issues, some to raise the profile of a company or publication, others to raise money and some to promote photography and photographers. Whatever, the primary intention all of them will embrace at least one, two or all four of these realities. It is up to the photographer to decide whether they feel comfortable with these realities before entering.

You don’t need to enter competitions to get your work seen or recognised, but success in some of them can raise your profile and allow you to describe yourself as ‘award winning’. Most are judged online by judges who for good reasons have no idea who has created which images, so don’t think that you are getting your attributed work seen by those judges unless you are lucky enough to win. The judging of photography competitions can be a complicated business which I have written about previously  https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2015/08/04/how-to-enter-photography-competitions-and-win/ but the process of entering can be just as complicated depending on your expectation of what the competition will give you. If your expectations are low you won’t be disappointed, if you place too much emphasis on their importance then you may be.

My request to those who run them is for transparency. Transparency concerning the judging and judging decisions, transparency as to the amount of entries and the profits made and transparency as to how previous winners have benefited from their success. Oh! And when you set a submission deadline stick to it!

*In response to this article I was sent an email that contained this paragraph “I entered the ‘Portrait of Britain’ competition, and fully regret doing so. Not only did they change the deadline but they also mailed me a promo code to ‘pass to a friend’ as an extra slap in the face. I won’t be renewing my subscription to the magazine as a result. Bad practice”.

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). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.

© Grant Scott 2017


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