There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter recently about the merits of photography competitions, in a way it’s been done to death, but having been involved in a lot this year I wanted to put my thoughts across, including my motivations for entering.
I enter a lot of weekly competitions on Twitter, I found out about the main one at the end of last year and having taken very few photos in 2015 I decided to use it as challenge to try and enter every week. Without that there are weeks when I definitely wouldn’t have got my camera out, but I’ve actually been really pleased with the results from some of my last minute experiments which have only happened as a result of trying to stick with the weekly challenge. Those photos have helped my development in abstract photography, which has become a big part of my portfolio.
Entering every week has also meant a lot of interaction with everyone else who takes part, there’s some fantastic photographers included there and great people too. Seeing their entries every week is a huge inspiration, not just in seeing some stunning images but in seeing the creativity that goes into trying to produce something week in, week out, even if you’re not able to visit an epic location or don’t get the conditions you want. That’s helped change the way I look at photography. I’ve met a few people from the competitions so far at exhibitions or for a morning’s photography and looks like there’ll be a lot more of that in 2017, chatting and shooting with other people with the same passion is invaluable, everyone approaches things differently and we can all learn a huge amount from each other. Again I’ve only spoken to these people because of the community involved in the weekly competitions.
I’ve had a second place and a few shortlists in the most popular weekly, I would have loved to win a week, not for the prize or any validation of my photography but because there’s an exhibition of all the winning shots, which will be fantastic for everyone involved to have their work on public display and I’m sure enjoy a great meet up at the opening night. I can’t say I’m not slightly disappointed to have missed out on that.
In the other company sponsored weekly I’m doing better, having won 3 so far which earned me prints of the images and some vouchers, this has helped show me the beauty and value of printing your work properly and been a real encouragement. All the winning images will be on display at the Photography Show at the NEC which will be another great opportunity for a meet up with fellow photographers. The grand prize in that competition is an A2 printer, £500 of paper and a days photography and printing workshop, there’s not many people who wouldn’t appreciate that and the benefit it could bring their photography, I have no expectations of winning but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the prize is a big motivation to keep entering. I don’t see anything wrong with a prize being the only motivation to enter a competition anyway, some of the prizes in the bigger competitions are life changing amounts of money, or priceless experiences.
The last of the weeklies is a community run thing, no prizes but the winner each week judges the next. I think this is a fantastic idea, giving everyone the chance to judge means there’s a great variety in the images shortlisted each week and having had the opportunity to judge it twice it’s a real insight into how difficult it is to choose a winner which can change the way you look at other competition results.
All 3 of these are also a way to get some really good exposure for your photography which can be helpful especially at the start, a lot of people browse the images each week and a ‘like’ from another photographer you admire, or an encouraging comment can be a real boost to your confidence. That exposure can easily lead to things like print sales or other opportunities too.
A few have taken issue with photos only being posted on a Monday with competition hashtags, but if the photographer is finding it positive, as I have, then why does it matter? The photo isn’t changed by having a hashtag next to it and if you’ve chosen to follow someone’s work it seems strange to ignore bits of it just because it’s a competition entry.
There’s been a few sweeping statements made about artistic integrity based on competition entries which just doesn’t make sense. Some people shoot specifically for the competitions but a lot just take the photographs they want to and enter their favourite or what they think might be most successful. I’ve entered plenty of images that aren’t remotely ‘competition friendly’, I’ve also taken a few ‘nice’ shots specifically with a competition in mind while out making dark blurry abstracts. I’ve had at least one project image shortlisted in a competition, nice to know it made an impact as a standalone picture, but obviously seeing it in isolation isn’t the full story, I’ve invited that image to be judged in isolation, but just another example that the single photo doesn’t tell you everything about the photographer. The fact is that even if someone is posting calculated competition winners you can’t judge their artistic integrity based on their competition entries any more than judging someone based on the fact they shoot stock, wedding or commercial photography. If that’s all they do and they enjoy it and it brings them success then brilliant, but it could also just be a small part of their work, completely unrepresentative of how they normally make images.
Take the bigger yearly competitions for example, I know a lot of people don’t take photos specifically for these and like me just look through their library before the deadline and pick the ones most suited to that competition. I managed a couple of major competition shortlists this year which I did take some form of validation from, but like many others some of my personal favourites were completely overlooked and some that did well I just put in to make up the numbers. Again, not representative of the photographer, just an image or two in isolation that a judge has liked.
I also don’t think you can make any judgement on the state of landscape photography from competition results, whether you like the images or not for a major competition they often have to be commercially appealing to keep sponsors on board and sell books. That’s not a bad thing, but does mean you’ll likely be disappointed if you expect a dark conceptual abstract to win a big award. People obviously enter the photos they think are most likely to succeed too, which is based on previous winners, so it ends up in a bit of a cycle.
Being one entry away from completing my weekly challenge this year I’ve achieved a lot of what I wanted from these competitions so will be doing a lot less next year, my overall output will probably be reduced significantly, but that doesn’t mean if I shoot something I think could do well I won’t throw it in the mix. I’d also still love to get an image in a book so will enter one or two of the major ones with that goal in mind. I’ll still be following them all to an extent as I want to keep seeing what people can come up with each week and keep talking to all the people I’ve met this year.
I guess the message of this rambling post is encouragement to anyone who’s put off by some of the negativity online. Hopefully you can see the positives I’ve taken from competitions this year, a lot of which are more from the taking part than from any real success, as corny as that might sound.
My only real philosophy is do what you want, do what makes you happy. If that’s never entering a competition it’s fine, if you spend all year trying to get that one shot that’ll grab the big £10k prize then that’s fine too. Everyone has their own path and we’re all at different stages of it. Competitions can be as much a part of your development as anything else so if it’s something you want to do then go for it and best of luck.