Today I learned through e-mail that 9 of my photographs that I submitted to the Asferico 2023 Photo Contest were selected to advance to the next stage of their competition. I am certainly excited about that news, although I have no expectation that I will win anything. I personally like entering some photography competitions because it gives me something to look forward to, something to aspire towards, and forces me to stretch myself creatively. I'll share some of those selected images along the way in this article. Hearing about my images being selected for advancement got me thinking about a recent social media post that declared that all photography competitions are bad. If they are so bad, why do I feel good about getting this e-mail today?
This particular outspoken photography personality mentioned that people only enter competitions to stroke their egos, that competitions are only looking for rights' grabs on your photographs, and that photography competitions only exist to make money off of you. As someone who founded and helps run a successful international competition myself, I agree without question that some photography competitions are set-up for these reasons. There is no doubt that the photography competition space is riddled with bad actors and desperate organizations looking to make easy money; however, not all competitions are the same. To determine whether or not a photography competition is something you should consider entering, it requires you to actually do some due diligence, to read the fine print, to learn more about the goals of the competition, and to think about your own goals as a photographer. This will serve you much better than listening to the latest cult of personality exclaim their disdain for photography competitions in black and white language. More nuance is required. Before I entered Asferico, I asked myself a simple question:
Why should I enter this photography competition?
For starters, I can't ethically enter my own competition, although that hasn't stopped some organizers. I think the competition I helped to create, the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, sets a high standard for nature photography competitions; however, I decided to enter Asferico because they have stringent rules for what you can or cannot do in editing, which is important to me and my personal ethics in landscape photography. If those are not things you find important, that's totally fine, as there are countless other competitions you can enter that share your views.
The competition I entered has a long history and tradition of showcasing interesting photography, and if they select some of my work, it will be an honor to find my work among previous winners, simply due to the fact that they are photographs I also appreciate and admire. Competitions are a fantastic way to expose great photography to the public that's otherwise been hidden or buried by social media algorithms and people who gamify these algorithms using social clusters to amplify content regardless of its quality. As an example, when we released the winners of NLPA for 2022, we had articles published all over the world in Atlantic Magazine, FStoppers, CNN, Timeout, Petapixel, South China Morning Post, Der Spiegel, Digital Camera World, and many, many other news outlets.
So why then are some photographers proposing that ALL photography competitions are bad? Let's examine some of these claims further by asking and answering some questions.
1. Do photography competitions exploit your desire to stroke your ego?
Actually, yes, that's exactly what some competitions do, and without an analysis of what they do with your entry fees or without some other form of added value other than taking your money and announcing winners, I would tend to agree with this statement, 100%. This is why I personally think its important for competitions to offer transparency and be open about their motivations, what they do with the money they make, and own up to making mistakes along the way. It's also important to look for other ways the competition gives back to the community or promotes photographers who enter. For example, for the competition I help run, I've been known to write articles about people who enter and invite them onto my podcast where they can promote themselves and their work while becoming more well-known by the photography community. I would have never known these photographers existed if they didn't enter my competition.
Lastly on this point, I think we should all be more open to celebrating our successes when they happen, while learning from the failures. Competitions are a great way to do both. I look back on images I submitted to competitions ten years ago and my photography has improved tremendously since then, and my accolades with competitions have validated that belief. Simply put, photography competitions provide me with a vehicle through which I can measure my growth, albeit in a flawed fashion (all competitions are flawed since they are judged by humans). There's nothing wrong in taking pride in your success.
2. Do photography competitions only exist to use your photographs in a rights grab for marketing?
It is true that some photography competitions truly only exist as a mechanism to gain legal rights to use your photographs for their own personal marketing efforts. This is especially the case with free photography competitions. However, like everything else in life, it depends. Not every competition is organized by some evil entity looking to exploit you for your photographs. It's important to read the rules and terms of service to see what they can and can't do with your photographs. I absolutely never enter a competition that allows royalty-free use of my images for "any" purpose. The verbiage to look out for reads as such, "Submission of a photo entry grants the Sponsor(s) royalty-free license to publish the entered photo image in any medium without compensation to entrant and to use entrant's photograph for any purpose, including marketing and promotion." Here is an example of a photography competition to stay from if you value the rights you have for your photographs. It is my opinion that no one should enter those types of competitions*. As artists we should value our work and by giving it away for free we are signaling to the world that our work has no value.
*Of course there are notable exceptions like in the cases of small non-profits running competitions for fund-raising. I can get behind these types of competitions.
2. Do photography competitions only exist to make organizers money?
The first question any competition organizer should be asking themselves is “what is the goal of the competition?” Conversely, as potential entrants, we should also be asking ourselves the same question of the competitions we seek to enter - what are their goals? Sadly, there are many competitions that seem to only exist as a marketing exercise and/or a way of making money for the organizers. Some photography competitions even take it a step further and skimp out on ethics altogether, including not following their own rules or having a fake judging panel. Notable examples would be Outdoor Photographer Magazine and several others run by this guy. Other competitions aim to do more with entry fees, like produce fine art books that feature hundreds of photographers, aiming to elevate and promote their high quality work, or by celebrating winners at their annual party, attended by art buyers and movers and shakers in the art industry. Let's not forget, many a photography career was launched by winning one or more competitions, and it can essentially serve as a way to give yourself a fighting chance at that. Some competitions can also serve as a way of "taste-making" what is "in" in our artform, and I think there's value in that role as well. It certainly can't be worse than social media algorithms which are gamed by people to gain status.
As a competition organizer myself, I can safely say that not all contests are wildly profitable. In fact, in my own competition, not a single one of us have made any profit, having chosen to use the money to produce books, pay judges, and award larger prizes to a larger number of photographers. Setting up and running a high quality photography competition not as easy as one might think. There are countless challenges to creating and running a high quality competition, all of which require time and money, including:
A. Finding and organizing a high quality set of judges.
B. Designing and implementing a system for taking entries.
C. Marketing the competition so that people actually enter it.
D. Evaluating whether or not you'll have enough money to pay out your prizes.
E. Cultivating sponsorship relationships for prizes and marketing.
F. Designing and running a website.
G. Communicating with entrants, who will send thousands of emails.
H. Organizing and implementing a fair and consistent judging process; etc.
As you can see, it is not always safe to assume that those creating photography competitions are doing so only to "make a buck."
3. Are photography competitions just "big business?"
Photography competitions should absolutely be seen and treated as a business; however, I'm not sure how competitions are different than any other form of business activity that photographers use to advance themselves in this field. Notable examples might include running workshops, writing books, selling tutorials, selling prints, hosting photography conferences, writing articles, creating magazines, performing product reviews and using affiliate links, etc. Should we also claim that all of these activities are just "big business?" I think not. They are all valid approaches to the same goal - to make it as a full-time photographer in this very competitive space. While it is true that competitions use photographers and their images to further the competition's goals, one must consider what value they are receiving in return for your entry fees, just as you might consider what value you are getting from taking a workshop from someone, buying their book, or attending their conference.
Taking it further, there are plenty of competitions that exist that have goals that go well beyond business and marketing. In fact, Memorial Maria Louisa is a non-profit competition that seeks to fund projects that promote the environment as it relates to mountains. I try to enter every year. The Nature Conservancy also hosts an annual competition aimed at helping them meet their lofty goals for conservation initiatives.
For my own photography competition, our goals were two-fold - we wanted to create a space where nature and landscape photographers who shared my personal ideals and vision for photography would be rewarded while creating products (fine art books) that celebrate their talent and success as photographers. That is why, at great personal expense, we provide a free copy of our book to every photographer who appears in it (which is over 120 each year, costing us over $4,000).
I offer a different set of questions we should instead be asking ourselves of any person or business entity in the photography space:
A. What are their motivations beyond personal advancement?
B. How will my support (or lack thereof) positively impact where I'd like to see my community / the artform / my own interests go?
C. How can my participation in their initiative provide support to a person or cause that I care about?
D. How closely aligned are my values and ethics with the person or entity?
4. Can you realistically create a photography competition that evaluates art, which is subjective?
I often see this argument being made against photography competitions: "How can there be 'a best' when all art is subjective?" It is a fair question to ask since it implies a hierarchy and that one photograph is better than the rest. I think a well-organized competition should be seen as a curated exhibition of images selected by a well-qualified and highly talented group of your peers. This is why it is important to evaluate each competition's judging panel to see how it may align with your own photography ideals, goals, and purposes, and why you should be very wary of competitions that fail to indicate who their judges are. Case in point, when we were planning our competition, we were most excited for it to become a tool to showcase an inspiring and varied collection of images that represented some of the most interesting and creative work we were seeing online and in person. We wanted to somehow use the competition to curate a virtual (and print) exhibition that we all would love to see - and I think we succeeded in creating that. We also aimed to recruit some of the most talented minds and artists in our field as judges, while paying them for their efforts.
Furthermore, in regards to competition and art, are we not constantly competing in the marketplace of ideas for attention, market share, and profit, as artists? Sure, there will always be those artists who say they are only doing it for themselves and that they don't care if anyone sees their work. That's totally fair and totally fine - more power to you folks. But what about those of us that actually do care if the world sees our photography? What if we actually have goals to monetize our artwork? What if we have goals for making photography our full-time evocation? What if our livelihood already depends on it? Should we not celebrate platforms that provide us with a vehicle through which our artwork can be seen and appreciated beyond social media algorithms? I think we should. It's also why I personally support as many high quality photography magazines (such as Elements and OnLandscape) as I possibly can (which are also usually selective in their curation process).
5. How should I choose which photography competitions to enter?
This is probably the right question to ask ourselves instead of labeling all photography competitions and contests as a waste of time and money. While I do agree with a lot of the complaints that exist about photography competitions, and trust me, they are prevalent, I do think that competitions can add value to the photography ecosystem and can provide value to the community and entrants beyond a chance at winning some cash (which, let's face it, is also a nice perk). If you find yourself wondering if you should enter a photography competition, ask yourself these questions:
A. Are the competition organizers transparent about their rules, motivations, processes, and results?
B. Will the competition use my photographs for purposes other than the promotion of the competition itself or to showcase the winners in some way (if so, run away as fast as you can)?
C. Does the competition offer a number of paths for winning commensurate with the cost of entry fees?
D. Will the photography competition do anything to promote photographers that do well in the competition, after the fact, such as a well-written and highly distributed press release?
E. Does the prize pool seem like a good value for the entry fees? For example, I'm not sure how competitions get away with or justify offering $1,000 prizes while asking a $30 per photo entry fee. I'm looking at you Outdoor Photographer Magazine.
F. Does the competition have a purpose (ideally one you can get behind) beyond providing its organizers with a retirement fund?
The bottom line is that photographers should carefully consider their own motivations for entering photography competitions and contests while cross-examining the competitions that are the best fit for their photography and their goals. Lastly, photographers should not take photography competitions overly seriously -the best way to think about them is to see them as a small investment in measuring yourself against your peers and your former self while offering opportunities for recognition, financial gain, taking part in something you believe in, and perhaps as a vehicle to launch your photography career. Also, they are a lot of fun. Maybe I should have said that from the start.