The rapid growth in the number of photography competitions over the past few years, has created an environment, in which many photographers feel the need to judge their success within the medium based upon their ability to describe themselves as ‘award winning’. The majority of these competitions require the entrant to ‘pay to play’ and offer in return ‘exposure’. They do not openly offer the opportunity to change your description of yourself, but the hope of success makes that outcome an implicit aspect of the relationship between entrant and judge.
Such competitions are not confined to the single or multiple image, they now include photobooks published, photobooks not-published and dummy photobooks. In addition to the photography competition opportunity to ‘win’, awards are also presented within festivals for ‘the best’ exhibition, contribution etc. etc., and by organisations for life-time achievement and contributions to photography.
I have no issue with people being recognised for their hard work, commitment and resilience against adversity, but I fear that the photo world has fallen head long into an environment of mutually beneficial back-slapping and ‘success’ chasing financial manipulation, none of which reflects well on those within the established photo cabals.
Awards are often seen as badges of honour, proof of quality and recognitions of commitment beyond the call of duty. They are important to many and therefore should not be handed out easily or without due care and attention. So, when I see them being presented to people within the photo world that are on comfortable salaries to do the job they have been employed to do, rather than to those working without financial return to create something new and exciting, I feel the need to speak out.
Without the independent photo community, our medium would become stagnant and even more insidious than it already is. It is the independent community working on an unfunded basis, fuelled by egoless passion that creates and supports the energy that photography needs to step out of its elitist bubble.
It is the independents who stage talks, exhibitions and events for free for the photographers who are not being noticed by the establishment. They are not interested in the ‘award winning’ description of a photographers work, but the work itself. They are not interested in who the photographer knows, or where they live. They are interested in supporting commitment, integrity and the story.
This is the case in many art forms and is not confined to the photographic medium, but the photographic community is being increasingly sold what I have previously described as a ‘false narrative’ based upon an idea that by winning establishment staged competitions and being featured within their publications success can be judged. Competition success can be but that is a very narrow definition and subjective overview based on a photographer’s work and should be seen as exactly that.
The reality of this situation is that the fiscally hard-pressed photographer ends-up financially supporting the establishment that is not interested in them as the establishment chases their own agendas around a small coterie of photographers ‘playing the game’. Schmooze the right people, enter the competition those people judge, win a competition by a monthly photo magazine, get an article in that magazine and the establishment exhibition and subsequent competition wins will follow. You are award winning and are now part of the cabal’s agenda.
Nothing new there I hear you say, wake up Grant, this is how the world works.
Yes, it does, and I am not naïve in my understanding of the obvious and subtle corruptions of ego and ambition. I have been fortunate enough to have been given awards myself and been flattered by the attention and recognition but they are not how I judge my personal creative success and I do not mention them anywhere outside of my personal CV available only on request. But in a time when many photographers seem to feel the need and pressure to describe themselves as ‘award winning’, I think it is important to place those awards into some form of context.
The problem with awards is that their presentation is invariably subjective, rarely objective. One person’s, ‘good’ or ‘better’ is not the same as another person’s and with subjectivity comes personal motive. It is at this point that the award becomes worthless.
Why does someone who is paid to perform a role deserve to be given an award for doing that job? The answer of course in many cases – but not all – is because the awarder wishes to ingratiate themselves with that person, to build a bond of mutual benefit. Outside of that relationship the award has no importance, and yet it does because as a society we are conditioned to respect the notion of the awardee as being worthy of note.
Within the creative arts the concept of competition and awards should be an anathema. They should not exist. The creative arts should be focused on independent creative expression without the addition of a competitive edge being introduced and subsequently promoting a sense of insecurity and failure.
Award winning is not a description of your practice to be chased, in many cases the lack of transparency surrounding their presentation gives them a sense of collusion and that is not a situation that you can win or need to worry about.
I have yet to see an award given to anyone working within the self-funded independent photo community. The people involved are not seeking such recognition. They are doing what they do because they need to, because they think it is important from a selfless place.
Work you create that fulfils your expectation should be reward in itself.
© Grant Scott 2019
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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 2019.