What do you need to know before you enter a photography competition? We consider these things often, and by the sounds of things, so do you!
With stories circulating about prizes being offered and later withdrawn, high entry fees, hidden costs, and immediate automated ‘we’re sorry you’ve not been selected’ emails, it’s no wonder it causes so many questions.
Large entry numbers can sometimes mean big money for the organisers and not a lot of hope for the entrants. Events and awards do cost money to run, and somewhere someone has to pay for this, but profiteering off hope is unfair and unkind, whatever industry you’re in.
What can you do?
Do your research. Don’t take the information on the awards’ own website as truth. Ask around, ask friends. If you have questions, ask the competition organisers. If they block you on Twitter you’ll know they’re not for you!
Keep an eye on the terminology. Look out for sayings like ‘our prestigious judges’ instead of real names and real information, and if they keep having to tell you that they are being ‘ethical’ or ‘transparent’, question why they feel the need to tell you this!
Read the details. Double check and ask if you’re not sure. Look at the entry fee, and then look to see if there are other costs if you are selected. Make sure you retain the rights for the images, and never sign your copyright away.
What will you get from it?
Your work in front of the judges. This used to be a good reason, but check that the list of judges will actually see the work and manage your expectations, occasionally the judges will see every submission, but often the organisers will make a shortlist and for the final expert jury to see.
Exposure? Good exposure? If you’re entering an ethical prize with your political work, do you want to be associated with an organisation who invites controversial guests to the awards and then immediately calls the Paparazzi to get shots of them looking worse for wear? We’ve seen it happen. You can’t be prepared for everything, but you can be alert.
You might win. It’s possible, it’s always possible. Remember, before you enter, do your research – titles and trophies mean nothing if other people in the industry don’t have faith in the organisation who is dishing them out.
We invited an array of excellent photography industry experts to share their thoughts and advice, and here they are, in all their honest glory!
“It’s true competitions can be a minefield. My general advice is don’t enter if they ask you to pay, but then there is the odd one, like the Taylor Wessing Prize, that ask you to pay and are really worthwhile. The best way of deciding if the competition is good is to first look at the judges, check their credentials – are they the sort of people who would be interested in your work? Are they relevant to your career development? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ then it is worth entering, as even if you don’t win a prize you will have managed to get key people to look at your work. The other thing to do is to look at the work of previous winners, check out who they are and see what has happened to them since they won the prize. This way you should be fairly sure it is a good competition. Generally good brands create quality competitions. Keep a database of all the good competitions and enter them every year – it can take time to get a prize!”
“Through my research I have learnt that photography competitions are not inherently bad, but when paired with the need/want to make large amounts of money they become problematic and leave people feeling rejected and short changed.
I believe that photographers need to take the time to do their research. It is easy to be told to ‘just enter lots of competitions’ but this can lead to quite a dent in your bank account, so I suggest approaching a competition entry in a similar way to a job application. Spend time looking into what type of images have been successful in the past, who are the judges, and what percentage of people are successful. Some of the major photography competitions offer a 1% or less chance of being chosen and though they might have the most enticing prizes you are more likely to be left feeling rejected.”
“For me, personally, I only think photo competitions are worth entering if they’re free, or if there’s a substantial reward (in the form of a grant, exhibition, etc.) that merits the cost of an entry fee. I see more and more organisations that seem to be profiting from artists looking for support or accolades by charging obscene entry fees and I don’t think it’s worth the investment. I’m also often only willing to pay a fee if I support the mission and the broader work of the organisation behind the competition.”
“Thankfully I think we have reached saturation point with paid entry competitions and the community is realising that many are not worth entering. I would say it’s better to save your money and enter a handful of the well-respected ones each year. Of course, if portraiture is your thing love it or hate it – the Taylor Wessing is the one to enter. Except for the annual flutter on the Taylor Wessing, I feel anything over £20 is too expensive to enter. I like the fact the Taylor Wessing has a long list of winners and due to the exhibition at the NPG a wider audience outside of the photography bubble gets to see the work. Again because of its long list I like the Magenta Foundations Flash Forward award.
I would look at the judging panel, if someone you want to connect with is judging then regardless of if you win why not email them after to seek their opinion on your work? Asking for feedback is a great excuse to get in touch!
I think it is worth noting the psychological impact of entering awards and not being shortlisted. So many factors go into picking a winner and the judging process is often far from transparent, it’s important to not let rejection dishearten you and impact your confidence in your own work. That’s coming from someone who doesn’t win any awards!”
“Some calls are strategically good to apply to for visibility, even if the competition is high. What I advise is look at the jury, see who you would like to put your work in front of, make sure you are clear about the ideas in the work, make a strong edit but mention if there are more works available, put weblinks into the text, make sure you understand what the organisation offers if you are selected (read the small pint), be aware of how your images will be used online/in print or exhibition by entering the call, who pays for what, and make sure you provide all your contact details!
Often open calls in unusual places and events can be more successful for artists than the familiar ones which receive thousands of entries and offer little in return.
As a juror when selecting works for photography awards/open calls, I look for something that fits with or challenges the brief, and something authentic or with a special aspect or detail that I might not have seen before. This can be a subtle nuance or a spectacular revelation.
I understand that the work of every artist is very important to them and encourage all artists at every stage of development to apply for opportunities such as these in the early stages of their careers, and at any point of an established career if the call fits. It can be disappointing to be rejected, but not every call will work out and as we all know ‘persistence works’ so I encourage all artists to keep going with their practice and to continue to develop the confidence to find their own voice and strategies to communicate visually.”
Louise Fedotov-Clements, Artistic Director, QUAD and Director, FORMAT International Photography Festival
“There are loads of competitions, portfolio reviews, paid (by the photographer) publishing deals, publishing deals reliant on successful crowd funding… which is fine. There is a market and if you want it, and can afford it, you can have it. That isn’t very inclusive, of course, and that can be a problem.
With any/all of those things, if I was interested in them (I’m not, but once was), I would consider the following: What is my work? Who do I want to see my work? Will the deal benefit me or my work? Who will see my work if it gets in the show / book / review? What are the chances / how many applicants? Is there a fee or a cost? Are there any copyright terms / exclusivity / surrender / embargo? Is the entry cost justifiable? Could the entry cost be used more efficiently or strategically to contact a person of interest directly? What has previously been shown, won, published, reviewed by this place / person / publisher? Who is judging, and who are they to judge?
From a Fine Art painting and drawing background, my role now is a mix of collector, curator, publisher, sometimes photographer. I still operate within the ‘Fine Art’ world, which I always have since graduating in ’99, but I try to work across other areas too. When I graduated I was keen for my work to be seen. I didn’t have to pay fees — I imagine for those who have, that want is even more urgent. I’d enter painting prizes, drawing prizes, exhibition in London prizes, illustration exhibition and a (obligatory) page in a book for extra cost prizes. That’s what you do. Now on the odd occasion, I buy a lottery ticket, and will never enter a paid for prize or exhibition, on a speculative basis. The best opportunities I’ve had are ones gained by making work and meeting people, spending a lot of time making work, and a lot of time researching who might be interested in it and the best places for it, or the places I think should have it.
This is all subjective. Competitions can be great and can really help boost a career, but I don’t think it happens often. I’d rather try to get my work seen by the people I think matter to it, and vice-versa. But as with a judge of a competition, this is just my view —certainly not the only view.”
“I believe the value of entering photography competitions is not necessarily in the winning. If you choose a competition that holds an exhibition of, or publishes, the shortlisted entries as well as the winners, you have a lot of potential to highlight your work to a wide audience even if you don’t win.
Whatever you enter, ask about the judging process. Are the entries presented to the judges anonymously? Sometimes a judge might attempt a guess, based on the photographer’s style if it’s a distinct one, but they will not know for sure. It’s important that they’re judging each image on its own merit and not on the photographer’s reputation.
Don’t think that submitting dozens of images will enhance your chances, especially if you have to pay for each entry. Select what you think is your very best and have faith in it. It will stand out more in the judging process if it isn’t obviously part of a whole series of images of the same subject.
Lastly, don’t ignore the smaller competitions in favour of the more high-profile ones. Entries will be lower, so chances higher, and the publicity gained could be just as valuable.”
Sheena Harvey, Editor BBC Wildlife
“My advice would be to do your research and engage your critical senses. Look at the price of entering if there is one, if it’s more than it costs to buy a lottery ticket then think very hard about which is a better use of the cash. Also check out if the prize has corporate sponsors, which they usually do.
If there is sponsorship and a fee to enter it always makes me wonder what’s happening to all that money. How accountable is the competition about their financing? You might also want to think about who the sponsor is and whether they are company you really want to be involved with if you win. For these companies these competitions are a public relations exercise, think carefully about whether you want your work to be used like that if you win.
Lastly keep in mind that given the way the judging in competitions works they more often reward middle ground work rather than anything genuinely interesting. Juries have to reach a consensus on what wins, and so work which divides opinion is at an inevitable disadvantage in this setting.”
Lewis Bush, photographer and writer
“I have been asked to be nominator, judge, chair of judges, jury, – online, in a panel, on committees, in the UK, India, and in Europe. I have seen the workings of competitions and awards and grants every which way, so have a good understanding of how many of them work. As a basic rule of thumb, I think that competitions can be a useful way to have your work seen – to introduce and disseminate it. However, there seem to be an increasing number of competitions that charge to enter.
It is important to do the research before entering any of the myriad possibilities:
How rigorous is the shortlisting process? By whom and how is this done?
Who are the judges and who are the administrators?
What is the best outcome?
What do you wish to achieve by entering?
I do think that some competitions are great -,SWPA are extremely professional and have a staff dedicated to making a streamlined and straightforward experience with high calibre judges. It is free to enter.
Portfolio reviews are a MUCH better way of receiving feedback and meeting people within photography!
“My advice would be to approach with caution. It’s important to be clear about what you want from a competition before you enter it – and then you can weigh up its worth accordingly. They can be expensive – so be selective about the ones you enter – and try to match up your work with the focus of the competition and the interests of the judges.
As artists, we are always looking for ways to get our work seen and for a sense of validation – but if this is what we want, perhaps we need to consider things outside of competitions to achieve this. Open calls can have huge value in finding undiscovered works, and I’m a big fan of doing it yourself – if you want to get your work seen and validated – can you find a way to make your own exhibition? Join forces with other artists and make it happen! These things can be other routes to your desired outcomes and may well lead to more opportunities.”
Becky Warnock, Artist and Engagement Manager Photofusion
“Photography competitions and awards are plentiful, but not all are worthy of your attention, time or money. They are often the subject of debate; some believe they are inherently bad and negative for the industry while many others embrace them as they seek to build awareness and a platform for their work and career.
We should all be realistic about the industry we are working in; commercial activity will always happen within the arts and some organisations will look to exploit the hopes and dreams of aspiring artists and photographers; just as our hopes and dreams are exploited in everyday life!
The key is to be savvy and realistic. What will this award offer me? Is it just a ‘title’ for a high-fee? Does it have a track record of giving artists a platform to grow? What are the benefits for the price? Am I ready and is it worth it? Is the organisation reputable?
My advice would be:
Evaluate the award you are looking to submit to; don’t spend over the odds for something that isn’t giving you the possibility of something tangible.
Do not be fooled by cash prize incentives.
Look more toward festival open calls or prizes with reputable arts organisations; they are often cheaper and the reward usually involves an exhibition which is much more valuable.
Read the terms and conditions and ensure your work isn’t going to be exploited and always make sure by entering you keep the copyright.
Treat it as a professional opportunity; have a strategy, take it seriously and only enter if your work is aligned to the theme and ready.
Consider not entering awards but rather spend the money on portfolio reviews; these offer one-to-one sessions with experts and they can tell you which open calls to apply to based on the work you’ve shown.”
Michael Sargeant, Online Education Manager, Magnum Photos
We’d love to hear your stories, good and bad, and we’d love it if you could help share this advice and make sure everyone is getting the best they can from the opportunities that are out there – there are some good things happening in the photography world, and some great people too.
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