Of all the goofy things I’ve said or written, the one that seems to come back to me most often is the idea that you can’t win at art anymore than you can win at yoga. I think art, or yoga, and competition, are fundamentally opposing philosophies. So, it shouldn’t surprise you that I tend to roll my eyes melodramatically at the whole competition culture within photography. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad or without its uses. Should you compete in photography? Is it worth the time, money, and emotional trauma? Let’s talk about it.
While I hold a very dim view of so much of the idea of competition, can the whole thing just be written off? I don’t think so. Every year I enter some of my work in consideration for some very specific awards for some very specific reasons, so it would be extraordinarily hypocritical of me to to discourage you from doing the same. Like so much in life, there’s room for nuance here and it all comes down to the question “Why?”
Why do you want to compete? What do you want to get out of it? Competition is like a tool – it does some things well, some things not so well, and some things it just wasn’t designed for and if you try to use it for that thing it’ll just fuck the whole thing up.
So before we talk about why, let me give you my own wildly subjective thoughts about competition and why I think it is generally incompatible with the world of art but might be helpful to your craft.
Art is many things but if you’re asking me then the one thing it MUST be is deeply personal. It must contain something of the artist. Art is a thing we do to express or explore something deeply personal and HOW we do that is equally personal. Art is distinguished from craft in exactly this way: craft can be measured, evaluated, subjected to rules. Art can’t. And if we evaluate the Picassos, the Monets, the Turners, the Warhols, or the Rothkos, on defined criteria of how art should or should not be done, we’d have collectively given the blue ribbon to something safer, something we understood. Art is anything but safe, and mediocrity wins more awards than what is exceptional and harder to grasp.
Furthermore, and you know I’m getting serious when I toss out a furthermore, if art is such an individual pursuit, the idea that we can compete against others means there is some kind of standard against which that pursuit can be measured, some kind of point of reference. And there is no such standard. So judgement has to be made in one of two ways: the first is the creation of a standard. Is the photograph sharp? Is it well exposed? Etc. These are matters of craft. The second is purely subjective. Does the judge respond to it in one way or another, does the work conform to that judge’s ideas about what is innovative, expressive, hackneyed, or otherwise? These are matters of art, specifically how one person, or a group of people, respond to that art.
So while what I really want to say is “to hell with competition” and I’ll probably do that impetuously at the end of this rant anyways, it would be impetuous. Because those two means of evaluation can be valuable. The first relates more to craft and if competing in early days, while you’re still a beginner, helps push you to learn your craft and be more relentless about the pursuit of technical excellence, then go for it. But make sure you’re putting that work into competitions that base their judgements on those merits. The second relates more to art and if you can get the eyes of experienced judges you respect then you might be able to get some sense of how your work is experienced by those more experienced, respected photographers, and that too can be really valuable.
If you want to compete because you want to learn, to push yourself, or to get feedback from respected masters you might not otherwise get feedback from, then competition is a great tool. It can also be a great tool for exposing your work to a wider audience. What it can NOT do is tell you whether you, or your work, are better than others, and it can’t tell you if your work is even an authentic reflection of who you are. In fact, that’s one of the dangers of competition: if you create work merely to please the judges are you really creating work that’s important to you, that’s about exploration of things that are deep-down most important to you, and expressing that in ways that are unique to you? The artist creates first to satisfy her own muse and no one else, and competition can drown that most important voice.
So why do I, personally, enter my work into a small handful of competitions each year? I do it because if I know I’m submitting a series of 10 images to a specific competition then I’ve got a specific deliverable and a deadline; two things I don’t often have as I do less and less client work. It forces me to be more thoughtful, less ad hoc, and to shoot and edit my work more seriously. I do it because while I know the decisions of the judges don’t validate my art, it gives me a sense of where I’m at, and keeps me from getting lazy or listening to the voices that tell me I’m better than I am. I love my fans but it’s critics that keep me honest. And on the occasions when I win something, there’s a chance at exposure I might not have otherwise have, or a chance to connect to new photographers and new ideas. But competition doesn’t inflate me or deflate me and it’s never about bragging rights. I get my joy from creating and sharing my work, and from learning how to make it better, not from a trophy with dubious meaning.
How do I decide which competitions to enter?
- I look at the terms. Too many small competitions are just a grab for your rights and I won’t support that.
- I look at who’s judging the competition. If I know and respect those people and feel they have something to teach me, I’ll consider it.
- I look at the potential exposure. If the resulting exposure to new audiences is strong, I’ll consider it. What I never ask myself is what will I win? If the prize is what clinches it for you, you might as well just buy lottery tickets and save yourself the grief.
Whatever you decide, hold this stuff lightly. A big win doesn’t necessarily mean much in terms of how good your art is. A big loss, should you choose to see it that way, also doesn’t necessarily mean much. And that’s where I still tend to come back around to eyeing competition with suspicion. It only means so much. If it helps you – really helps you – in some way, go for it. But the world is full of “award-winning photographers” who are camped out on awards they won 10 years ago, happy to know that once upon a time they were the “best” at something, and they’ve never moved on from the rut their ego won’t let them escape by taking risks and doing new work. And the world is equally full of astonishing photographers creating incredible work that will never win a trophy or a blue ribbon. The lack of those accolades don’t diminish the excellence, innovation, or humanity of their work.
So compete or don’t compete as you choose. At the end of the day it’s not the competitions that are the problem. If we choose to have our work considered for those awards it’s what we DO with the wins and the losses that counts. It’s how we react to them. Some responses will move us forward in healthy ways, some will do great damage, one way or the other to our egos, and some reactions will have the effect of an anchor, making sure we never move from this safe place, this moment in time when we “won” and that rut we get in will be as good as a grave creatively if we don’t cut the anchor line and move forward.
Let me say one final thing, because I’m trying to be really fair and balanced about this so I’ve hedged my bets a little in this rant. The job of the artist is to tend to his, or her, art. That’s where our eyes and our minds and our hearts must be. And comparing ourselves to others, which is fundamentally what competition is about, is a dangerous opportunity to look over our shoulders at what others are doing, and the moment we get out the measuring stick to see if we measure up, is the moment many of us will begin to doubt the voices that were once so clear. And if those comparisons nudge you even one step in a direction that is not authentic to you, that doesn’t give you joy, or that brings you back to the mediocrity you worked so hard to escape; if they dampen your spirit and steal your joy, then I’m begging you, forget the competitions and do your work. Tend to your art. Do what gives you joy and makes your work better. That’s all that matters.