Photo Competitions – A Better Way

I am not a fan of photography contests/competitions, especially within camera clubs. A shocker, I know. Anyone familiar with my work or thoughts knows of my disdain for contests in general. I realize it’s a somewhat tired subject, but it came up often in this fall’s workshops from the participants themselves, almost always in a negative way. It has led me to question why this activity continues to exist in the first place. I found myself pleasantly surprised to hear the griping. As an instructor I don’t like to see fellow photographers engaging in habits that inhibit growth. It gives me hope that we may finally move on from this tired and useless activity. It got me thinking that there has to be a better way.

I understand that photo competitions within camera clubs exist as a way of sharing and getting feedback on our work. We view the work of others and learn, not just by observing, but also from the judge’s comments. That’s in an ideal world. There are several problems with this model. Much of the griping centered around the judges. I recall from my tenure in a camera club many years back that finding quality judges is a difficult task at best. Many judges seem to possess no more knowledge of art or photography than the Rule of Thirds or other basic formulas and have little appreciation for creativity or originality. A bigger problem is the intrinsic subjective nature of the entire exercise. One judge’s trash is another’s treasure. Enter the same photo for two judges and get two different opinions. What can one possibly learn from that?

The most dangerous aspect of photo competitions is that they can breed conformity at the cost of personal creative development. In our desire to “win” we create and enter photos designed to appeal to the contest or judge’s tastes, the types of photos that do well in contests. In other words, we create for others rather than ourselves. Nothing could discourage creativity more than relenting to external forces. On more than one occasion I heard workshop participants evaluating a photo they made based on how well it would perform in their club’s competition. Steam was almost literally pouring out of my ears. It’s a mindset that needs to go, to say the least.

The first step in improving the situation is eliminating the competition part entirely. No awards. What is the point? The next step would be to have discourse between the photographer and judge. In my experience the judge evaluates the photos without any comments from the photographers. I believe that a photo can be much better evaluated when the judge knows something of the photographer’s motivation and intent. Of course, all of this assumes a qualified judge, which is anything but a given. A better way is to eliminate the judge entirely. Every camera club has members who range in experience from beginner to expert. Work would be shown and the members would comment in a kind, helpful, and constructive way with the more experienced photographers assuming something of a mentor role. Certainly that would be more rewarding than taking home meaningless ribbons every month. I have no doubt these ideas are nothing new and are in fact being used by groups and clubs already, I would simply like to see them become the rule rather than the exception.

Outside of camera clubs it would seem the primary reason for entering photo contests is that they are a great way of getting “discovered”. I have no doubt that winning a prestigious photo contest has served as a springboard for some photographers’ careers. However, I would argue that if the talent is truly there they would find success regardless. If the goal is to receive feedback on your work I would suggest having a portfolio review with a “professional” photographer with whom you share similar sensibilities, one whose work and philosophies align with your own. Ideally the reviewer would take the time to get to know you, your motivations and objectives. Only then can your work be constructively critiqued. 

My overarching reason for rejecting photo contests is that competition has no place in art. Winning is not the metric by which art should be evaluated. It’s not about who is better, it’s about your own personal development and achieving your potential. The ultimate judge of your work must be you, no one is more qualified. It takes time and practice, but eventually you will learn to critique your own work and evaluate your progress. 

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