Photography contests, fed by our desire for attention and validation, have sprung up like dandelions over the past few years. Not only do they act as marketing materials for the hosts, but can be lucrative fundraisers for them. Some bring in many hundreds, if not thousands, of photographers at an average of about $30 for three images. Not too shabby.
But it is not all one-sided. We, as photographers, get something in return. If our work happens to get accepted, we get encouragement and inspiration to continue. We also get an entry for our artist resume and possible inclusion into a brick-and-mortar exhibit (just be careful of extra fees such as from The Center for Fine Art Photography). While these alone will not make our career, they can play a part in future successes. For instance, my modicum of success in contests helped populate my artist vitae which, in turn, helped me to get a series of month-long, national park artist residencies.
Even if we lose, we can learn. Were the accepted images technically superior, or more visually intriguing than ours? Were they more thought out or conceptually deeper?
Or, were they simply more in line with the juror’s interests and agenda?
That last one is huge and is, IMHO, the primary reason our work is not accepted. And it is, in large part, our own fault. We don’t do our research.
Take, for example, Dodho Magazine’s 2017 photographer of the year contest which was just announced. They include eight world-class jurors. But what can we learn of them? Some quick research reveals three are heavily involved with documentary or photojournalistic images, three with more conceptual image making, and only one who is interested in images of nature, but even then with a very not-traditional approach. The final juror is from the magazine but, since the magazine chose the other jurors, we can deduce his preference. The bottom line is that none of them, not a single one, seems to show an active interest in traditional landscapes. So, how do you think those landscape images will fair? Not good. Sure, a couple might slip through the cracks, but it won’t be many. But, I think I can safely assume that a very large percentage of entries, thus entry fees, will be from those images.
Please don’t get me wrong, I like Dodho Magazine. They showcase some amazing talent and even featured my work a few years ago. This is not about them being wrong (they are not), but about photographers being smart.
Few of us have money we can just toss in the garbage, but that is often what we do. And the contest hosts count on it. We enter contests or juried exhibits without a clue as to who the juror is, or their predilections for photographs. We assume all photographs will be judged equally on their technical and artistic merit. So, we blindly enter and most of us lose, even with great entries.
We need to be smart. Perform our due diligence. Research. Look at the host and their past selections, look at the juror(s) interests or work. Put Google to use. Don’t just throw your money away.
But, if you feel that you must throw your money away, I gladly take donations.