How to Evaluate a Photography Contest


Contests have become an integral part of fundraising for many photography-related galleries, institutions, or groups. These contests, while not a definitive evaluation of quality, skill, or talent, can play in important role in providing photographers both inspiration and recognition. In addition, they can force us to think more about the quality or our work and its relevance to the contest guidelines. And, for those hoping to exhibit work or take part in an artist residency, contests can help provide much needed entries in our artist resume.

To do any of those things, however, we first have to have our work accepted. And the guarantees are few, if at all.

To help increase our chances of success, we have homework to do. All contests are different, and each needs to be carefully analyzed to determine which images might have the best chance at being accepted, and if our work is even worth our entering.

We need to look past the title/theme, and know who will be judging our work.

A current call for entry by the Southeast Center for Photography, “Black, White, & More,” serves as an interesting example. At first glance, it appears to be a simple black and white photography contest. But, if you look closely, you will notice the “… & More” qualifier. That tells us things are not so cut and dry.

Reading the prospectus gives us a clue. It includes the line “… this theme would be more interesting if interpreted in a multitude of ways than just an exhibition of monochromatic images.” So, our simple black and white photography contest will more than liketly include color photographs. This is followed by the troubling line “…photographs that are black and white are acceptable.”

WTF? Acceptable? That is like saying they are fine. Or just okay. Hardly an enthusiastic endorsement.

The prospectus then goes on to discuss various concepts that the term “black and white” elicits: a lack of ambiguity, a firm position, the purpose of black and white chess pieces, opposites, heroes and villains.

Taken as a whole, the prospectus tells us that this is a contest which is, at its heart, about ideas and concepts (banana taped to a wall) more than it is about aesthetics and technical excellence (Ansel Adams).

What is my take away? The juror, Paula Tognarelli, has made it pretty clear what she is looking for: contemporary concepts as opposed to traditional cores. So, I doubt many standard black and white photographs will be accepted. If I were a traditional landscape photographer (which I am guessing make up the bulk of entry fees in any contest), I would not spend my money here. To be honest, from what is written in the prospectus, I am not sure that I would even enter a black and white image ( I am joking ???? ).

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that this is a bad contest. It actually sounds quite interesting and the juror both talented and insightful. But, for the best chance at success we must do our homework.

Chuck Kimmerle