Photo Gambling Explained

My father always said that gambling was a mug’s game and that there was no such thing as a poor bookie. These rules for life have stuck with me and rarely have I ever been seduced into putting some money on a horse or a ‘sure thing’. That’s my approach to gambling. The odds are stacked against you and we all work hard enough for our money to give it away on a promise that may not be kept.

Gambling is a lottery, just as entering a competition is. There may be a promise of gold at the end of the rainbow but there will be a lot of people being promised that singular pot and its contents. But that promise comes with conditions attached.

As any entrant to a photography competition knows those conditions need to be carefully read. Issues around giving away copyright and hidden entrance costs have been common over the past few years and still occur but thanks to vigilant photographers willing to call out the worst offenders, on the whole competition terms and conditions writers seem to have lessened their greed to take control of your work.

When was the last time you put any money on a horse? a greyhound? a ball game? the turn of a card? When was the last time you gave someone you don’t know £20 or $30 to judge you on the basis of a promise? Maybe never, maybe not often, unless you are a gambler and that is my point. Pay to enter photo competitions are gambling with the odds stacked against you, they want to turn you into a gambler. Some are independent bookies looking for a quick return, others corporate bookies funded by multi-national brands looking for a little art based kudos in return for a little bookie funding. 

Whatever way you slice it photo gambling is not to the benefit of the majority of photographers. Sure some win, someone has to, but just like you can get lucky on the horses, without a little ‘insider’ information its hard if not impossible to not lose your winnings eventually.

I’m not anti-gambling but I am against false promises and fake narratives in an industry that I have spent the last 35 years working in. There was a time when paid for photography competitions did not exist and despite that photographers became known, got book deals and commissions. 

Gambling is a recognised addiction, and I think its about time photo gambling came with a health warning. In future every pay to enter photo competition should come with a clear label stating “This Competition May Be Bad For Your Health and Your Pocket!”

Image: A game of whist depicted by Samuel William Fores.

© Grant Scott 2020

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 was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

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