Understanding Photography Competitions: A view from a jurors side of the fence

Understanding Photography Competitions:
A view from a jurors side of the fence

Whether we like it or not, photography competitions are part and parcel of the game for a good proportion of us. You could even look at our recent statement images membership application as a competition of sorts. But despite knowing their flaws, paying their high entry fees, some of us seem to be drawn to them like a moth to a flame.

 

In May 2011, I found myself somewhat perplexed to be sat around a table of peers, ready and waiting to slide through the mound of finalists for the London Street Photography Festival International Open Award and in September 2011 I found myself running the Street Reverb Reality Remade competition with Sony Ericsson.

This was never something I had banked on, applied for or even enquired about, but the experience I gained from it is something I will hold dear and take with me as I continue my photographic journey.

Until last year I never really entered many competitions, it just wasn’t something I cared about. This was until I was announced as a finalist for the Burn Emerging Photographer Fund, a competition I wasn’t going to enter until I received some strong encouragement from people close to the fund.

While the $10,000 prize didn’t reach my bank account – I didn’t win- my entry was well received, and from it’s “finalist” position it sprouted sales to international magazines with little effort to push it from myself.

For me, this was a turning point; I would now see competitions in a different light. They were no longer merely a label or something to stick on a CV, but from now on they would be more of a key to many different doors and opportunities, and at the same time a key point to how I would conduct a portion of my photographic career.

My first judging experiences running competitions and judging them came little over a year following these events, and the insights I achieved here is what I wish to share through this post.

First of all, I’ll talk a little about the structure of the judging for these particular competitions and although I know it’s by no mean the standard systems, it will however – if only in some small form – apply to others.

 

First up for the London Street Photography Festival, each judge was supplied with a random set of 90 entries with the goal of sifting these down to a choice of 5 move on to the next round.
Second round for this competition involved selecting 3 photographers from the pool of everyone’s previous 5’s selections. The reality remade competition was of a similar nature to this, tho I asked each judge to select 5 photographers from the whole submissions.
Finally for the London Street Photography Festival a “round the table” discussion would take place with approximately 30 entries whilst for the Reality Remade competition we ranked each and every semi finalist to create a list of finalists and then later have a discussion for the winner and for statement, well we’d view all the entrants together, have an open and frank discussion about each , but then volume wise this definitely will not be possible with all competitions.

 

For the first stage, Being assigned a random batch of photographers to select your 5 choices from is a pretty strange experience in my opinion. But with competitions such as the London Street Photography Festival competition where they receive some inordinate amount of entrants (1600-2000 in this case), this was definitely an easy way to reduce the workload of the judges involved. But it did come with some negative points.

The main issue here was that the random selection you were assigned could for instance consist of work, which doesn’t inspire you, maybe doesn’t really fit the theme, but then may inspire somebody else and could contain their desired winner. You could also be handed a strong selection of images containing say 10 entries that are exceptionally good work, whilst another judge could completely struggle to select any entries from their batch.

At this stage, many good photographers can be culled by what I thought of as “The Luck of the Draw”, and I’m talking about good photographers who may have otherwise reached the final. If a competition uses this method (and many do) there is no real way to ensure you’ll get past round one, it doesn’t matter how good your work is or well received it may be, you are at the whim of a single individual and you just have to hope that they play by the rules, have no hidden agendas to uncover some underdog or peoples choice angle and that they get the rules of the theme, rules and competition as a whole!

 

The second phase, choosing photographers to make a semi final of sorts, is a little more complex and in some instances can involve some strange thinking and guess work. And no, I’m not kidding.

Here judges are introduced with the possibility of taking photographers into the final where they could potentially win to prize and title etc.
Any photographer failing to get a single vote here is out, yet one who gets many votes is not the winner (or at least not yet).
All will seem well here, until you realize that you can only select a limited number of photographers (3 or 5 in my cases). By this point the pool of potential candidates should be strong, and failing this you should have your initial selections in there to continue with. The problems arise when you play the guessing game as some judges may be tempted to do.

For example: Photographer A has fantastic work and a broad appeal, however, they aren’t your winner of choice, but maybe a good runner up? So you consider at this point that some of the other jurors are likely to vote for them, and you’d rather bring in an alternative to the table, maybe a solid third or fourth placed vote that you feel may otherwise be overlooked for the more popular options?

It’s at this point that some good contenders could be lost in the mix if several members of the Jury have the same thinking, particularly if someone is more keen on pushing the boundaries, creating discussion and being “different” rather than simply selecting deserving winners and finalists.

 

The final stage is where the winners are chosen.

Right now, your in the hands of the judges, you’ve got to hope they stick to any given theme, rules and by their choices as there is always the possibility of strong personalities being able to get what they want through the power of persuasion alone.

At this stage there is more taken into consideration than just the images. It’s about the sequencing, the artist statement, the biography of the photographer, their reputation, history of winning awards and how the work compares to other well known or award winning pieces. Say, if the work is reminiscent of some amazing work, which has won a previous competition, then chances are, someone could raise this as a negative point in an effort to not have the competition follows in the footsteps of another.

This point didn’t particularly come up in my case, but through speaking with other photographers, it had in theirs and from the point of someone who has been responsible for running a competition, I can sort of understand it.

Other possible weights could be placed on underdog stories, shock and awe, how appropriate the work is, whether the photographer is a deserving winner, judging whether the photographer is arrogant and expects to win, and whether the work fits into some pre defined ideal of what the winner of the competition should be.

 

With all of this in mind, I will take the following notes with me into any competition:

 

Be consistent with the images.

It’s obvious, but you’re only as strong as your weakest image. And like it or not, a strong theme, idea or purpose to the images can beat a random selection hands down every time.

 

Have a well-written statement.
The statement should add more insight to the work including how and why it was created, a poorly written statement could be the difference between being a winner and not at a close tie. The statement is your representative to speak for your work when you can’t. You should also keep that in mind that it should aim to answer questions raised through the work.
Get someone else to read it for you and for the sake of humanity run a spell check on it.

 

Play by the rules.
Make sure you fit the theme and history of the competition. You’re not as likely to progress if you’re not a good fit for what they want to present as a winner.

Do your research, look at past winners if they have them, or look at what they use to promote the competition. With first year competitions it’s hard to judge, and this is why some have fewer entries, especially if they are quite prescriptive with the theme. But as they don’t have this history you will have more chance to help shape it.

But look at what they present as a whole, if they have a history of showcasing portraiture, hold back on that reportage submission and save the cash for something more appropriate.

 

Try to avoid direct comparisons to the work of others.
This may sound strange, especially after what I’ve just said, but if you submit a story which many others have covered, you are putting yourself in direct competition with everyone else. We saw that this year with the statement membership applications. At times it seemed that everyone had covered a boxer or fighter of some sort, with few taking a unique approach to the subject, and it only showed the flaws of some of the projects as we could compare the like for like.

The last thing you want a judge to say is “oh, another…” so I’d suggest to just steer clear, or document it in a completely new way!

 

Take note of timing.
You don’t want to jumpt the gun and enter a competition straight away and at the same time you don’t want to run out of time.
Take your time, do your research and pay attention to your submission. A lot of photographers make this mistake of last minute submissions and see the deadline more as the date when they should submit on rather than the last given opportunity.
Last minute submissions rarely get anywhere and you can usually spot them a mile off, they’re the ones who have little mistakes, poor writing, grammer and spelling in their statements and more than likely they’ve not let their edit sink in and it will show.

Add to this that a lot of people are submitting at the same time you could end up being hit with some technical difficulties and your entry could be lost, it’s just not worth the risk.

 

Don’t take it personally.
With the luck of the draw and anomalies in other rounds of judging, good images and photographers can easily fall by the way side and it isn’t always because they didn’t like your work. Keep your chin up and keep plodding on.

This is especially true when it comes to membership applications such as statements. Sometimes we loved the work that an applicant had submitted but felt it may not have been a good fit with us, nothing wrong with that, and you’d definitely not want to lose confidence if that was the case, so pick up and move on to better opportunities.

 

Where there’s feedback, take it.
It’s rare that competitions will offer feedback on submissions, especially for free. But should they offer it, then you should jump to the chance to receive it. I’m not talking about entering into a discourse with the judges here, but maybe just receiving a note on why your entry failed, or maybe a critique on the work overall. You entered the competition valuing the reputation of the judges and their experience, so you should surely want to hear their thoughts on your work!

With the reality remade competition, whilst the judges themselves didn’t personally enter into any discussions, it was also nice to see that the community themselves got together to discuss each others work

 

If you have any tips for people entering competitions, or a story you’d like to share, add it to the comments section!

By: James Dodd

  • http://jamesdodd.net James Dodd

    It could be a real issue localised to australia, I’m really not sure. But it could be the experienced photographers know their work better and are able to write about it in more eloquent and understanding manner than anyone new to the scene.
    They also likely know how the competitions work, know what work to submit where and know the taste of the judges through their past experiences.

    (The competition judges may also decide to choose someone who will be a good brand ambassador for the competition, this is something I heard mentioned a few times from various sources).

    But with competitions everyone has to start somewhere don’t they? We’re not all born as experienced or seasoned professional photographers? So I imagine these “pros” were once in the position of an emerging photographer, and maybe had the same sort of feelings about the competitions as you? who knows? But maybe a few of them stuck it out and got to grips with the systems in place, and it’s those who seem to always win now?

    It’s all a game, and you’ve got to play by the rules dictated…. it’s just that sometimes it takes a few years for these rules to surface and become apparent to us.

  • http://twitter.com/richardford Richard Ford

    With hidden agenda’s.  In some comps in Aus – it always seems to be some existing pro that wins and then as part of winning there is a detailed synopsis of their pro life and what they are doing with their shooting as part of the “scene”.  I get the feeling that non pros are able to enter but the judges all decide to keep it together and keep it within the circle of starving artists?  Not with any formal timetable to see who gets what ordered bite of what cherry – but certainly appears that way.  Or is this an issue that is more relevant to the size of the pool/country/locale that is holding the comp?

  • Gordon Stettinius

    Not sure if this link will be of interest but as I am about to sort / cull about 300 submissions (roughly 900-1000 images) for a gallery exhibition I recently wrote this to explain my own biases as a juror. I hope to explain that I have chronic stylistic and subjective tendencies that will seriously tweak the outcome of this juried exhibition. In other words, some great work will not make the grade essentially because I don’t much care for great work of that particular sort. This is not news to most people really but the two related points are do your homework on judges when possible and then I will second the notion of keep your chin up. So much good work falls away at a discretionary whim. For a good image, there is going to be a positive outcome somewhere.

    http://gordisdead.blogspot.com/2012/04/unbound-exhibition-call-for-entries.html

    And BTW, the deadline is passed for this exhibition. I am presently moving all the images around and thinking. It is usually easy to reckon with the bottom third or so but then it gets more difficult.

  • http://jamesdodd.net James Dodd

    I see where you’re coming from, but they need to ask for names (for obvious reasons), but sure, they may not need share them immediately with the judges, this is true.
    But judges may already be familiar with the work of some competitors and this is hard to avoid. And this is especially true of niche genres such as street photography. So if they already know the work, what it’s about and who the photographer is, what would be in the name?
    I don’t agree that judging should be left to the power of photographs alone. There are times the work needs to be put into context and without having a photographer there to explain something, the artist statement has to become their representative. Obviously I’m not saying that the photographs aren’t important, they are – they’re definitely the most important aspect – but should there be a split decision, or you need a little more information then without the artist statement you’d have nothing.

  • http://jamesdodd.net James Dodd

    touché

  • Darren

    A good synopsis James. The best competitions do not ask for the name of the photographer – the winning entries should have nothing to with the reputation of the photographer, only the power of the photograph/s.

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