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.
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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.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
Oh I love this – I’ve only just come across this article but it so resonates with me. If we could also, persuade camera clubs that photography isn’t about winning that would be great too. I just want to go and have a chat about photography stuff but it’s impossible as their meeting agendas don’t really support it.
Thanks David – this article was a breath of fresh air.
Thank you, Claire! Yes, getting camera clubs beyond the competition model would be awesome!
Competition is everywhere especially in photographers, but thanks to you David we are enlightened on how to deal with it and how to develop our skills and style in photography…
I always found something informative on your blog. I have learned lots of things from you. I participated 3-4 times during my early days when I had no work but could not win. After reading your this post I am planning to participate in photography competition again. I also subscribed for your PDF guide.
Keep doing great work.
Thanks Martin. I really appreciate everyone who picked out one of my images as one of their favourites (we had a People’s Choice vote which is what Martin is referring too, alongside the picks of the four judges).
I’m also very aware of what that achievement was based on. What I “achieved” was consistency. I managed to turn in 7 images, that were semi-decent from a technical point of view. A couple of which seemed to really connect with people, or they appreciated the work involved, and the numbers went my way… this time. When I was selecting which images to put in, I was thinking about which best fit the brief in an interesting way. They weren’t necessarily my favourite images that I’d taken in that period. In fact my favourite out of the ones I submitted barely placed.
It was a long exposure B&W seascape that I got up at 5am in the morning to shoot, in the cold, before the rest of the family woke up. I love it because it took effort. I set out with an image in my head and I came back with something pretty close and it reminds me of the images I’ve seen photographers I admire post on their feeds. Other images I took in the time frame wouldn’t have been taken without the impetus from the challenge that was set. That’s what I get out of it. Practice and a reason to get my butt out of the door to go and make pictures.
My all-time favourite images though are of the people I care about. I’ve got a ton of moments that I’ve captured of my kids that I’ve tried to do in a more artistic way than most, and I share them with very few people and don’t post them online. That’s what makes them special. That’s what I’m going to leave behind when I’m gone.
I thought this was going to be a rant David. It’s actually a really well balanced point of view.
I don’t enter these competitions like gurushots, or viewbug etc for all the reasons you mentioned above. However, what I am part of is a Photography Scavenger Hunt on G+. We get 7 words/themes and 8 weeks or so to go out and create an image for each. There’s about 300 of us that take part in any given round ranging from professionals making money out of there craft, to amateurs with DSLRs doing it to be creative and learn or just for fun and people out with their smartphones taking street photography. It’s a great mix, but we all have one thing in common. We’re there to create, have fun, share techniques and our final images. For a lot of us it gives us the impetus to get out of a rut, try something new we never would have considered before or hone our technique for a style we’re already working with.
We get to know each other through the weeks and over the many rounds there have been (we just started round 22). It becomes a little online family all working on the same project.
Is it judged, yes. But there is no money, no prizes. The fact that winners get picked at the end is almost incidental to the whole process. But what is great is to see how people improve, learn and encourage each other.
Just thought I’d share this, as it’s a very different style of “competition”. It’s actually so much more than that. It’s a community of photographers enjoying their craft.
Sounds great, Stuart. We could all use a little more light-hearted play.
Well, if you even fancy joining us we’d love to have you 🙂
Here’s a link to Lauri’s (the lady currently running it) post collection for the last reveals if you’re interested to see what we came up with for : Window Light, Jade, Zen, Squash, Garbage, Decisive Moment and Smile.
Where, natürlich, Stuart was voted the overall winner. And well deserved, too.
I agree…quick story….entered a competition and one of the judges commented on one of my images was so aggregious that it should have never been entered. The comment aggravated me but I submitted it to another competition and it won an award and was published.
One person’s opinion does not make the artist…I believed in my work and that is all that matters.
I still enter competitions just to observe people’s reactions to my work; to help me understand their thought processes why they think the way they do to different photographs/ art pieces which help me grow.
Such a great story, Rex, and a great example of exactly why photographers need to be talking about this competition culture and not blindly entering everything for a chance of a win. I often wonder how many photographers got sidelined by a “loss” never to shoot again, or by a “win” never moving beyond the safety of of what works.
I certainly would agree it’s not his best effort, but “horible,” is a bit strong. Plus, the man did so much outstanding work, I think we can forgive a few less than stellar images. I would bet we all have a few in our lexicon. Just sayin’. ?
Great points David – I assume most people at.e submitting existing work not going out for some,thing now to impress that specific judge – or do they have new work only competitions too? In either case thanks for warning about the use policy – sad to think there are folks out to get free works of art!! I’ve thought of submitting to the local state or county fair – usually local club entries and students but a lot of pros lately. I’d be curious what your thoughts are on this kind of less commercial aspect? Up there with price pigs, pies and pumpkins?
Ps- old crazy man hair would be a great cover for carrying around your Leica – no one will bug you!! And speaking of cover – what’s with the tea bag tag hanging out of your scotch mug? 🙂
Well said. Many salient points. The biggest problem with competitions is that they are subjective, and the outcome, be definition, must reflect the personality, perspective and mood (and taste) of the judge(s). That’s no way to assess someone’s work. One has only to spend some time on ViewBug to understand this fact.
Another problem with competitions, especially the large ones, is the sheer number of entries, how could the decisions be anything but arbitrary when jurors are so overwhelmed with such numbers. How much time can be given to actually viewing/considering each entry?
Agree on all accounts. The people you choose to give you feedback are really important. And no, I’ve never understood Moonrise either.
Love this post David. Spent years chasing other people’s approval with my work. Wish I had just done my thing instead. Doing it now!
I always prefer collaboration and enriching each other is the good way to have a nice and meaning full life.
You can grow staying with peers.
Competiton is not a good approach.
Moonrise is IMO a horrible photograph. I’ve never understood the attraction to it either.
Good column David. You touch on my views on these things too. Most of these comps are just money grabs imo. I see the extended deadline way too often. To me that says ‘sorry guys, we haven’t reached our money goal just yet’.
I’ve stopped entering comps all together. It’s the blind leading the blind. Even the ‘landscape photographer of the year’ comp has become laughable. It’s an empty accolade.
I rather do portfolio reviews with peers that I respect (and that offer this) than to enter a competition. That way there’s more of a personal connection with the judge. Lots to learn from that than getting a merit from some comp nobody cares about.
A “horrible photograph”??? I appreciate Tom’s comments above and his preference for Migrant Mother. At the level of the three photographs he put forth some will prefer one or the other, but to say that Moonrise is a horrible photograph lacks an understanding of its emotional impact. Not every photograph has the same emotional impact on every person who views it, but of the three mentioned by Tom, it has the greatest emotional impact on me. Weston’s pepper is a close second, but does that mean Migrant Mother isn’t an impactful photograph to me? No, of course not. But the gleaming white crosses in Moonrise, overlain by the white clouds, small white moon and great black negative space has an undeniable connection that bowled me over from the first time I saw it. And if you have never seen an original of the print, you can’t fully appreciate its impact.
Thank you for this. It’s unfair, though, that such a talented photographer should also be a skillful writer, let alone an incisive thinker. It’s only a coincidence I praise the presentation because I agree with it.
My involvement has been only with local competitions, a limited experience, but my “club completion” familiarity taught me a few things. Winning a competition means that your photograph was the most appealing, but only as viewed by those judges at that time and place and considered with only the other images presented at the same time. I also learned never to show a rodeo photograph to a PETA supporter. It was painful.
When asked why I don’t participate, I tell the questioner to consider three images, all “monochrome prints,” namely Weston’s “Pepper Number 30,” Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Which one wins?
The answer is simple: Adams’ “Moonrise.” Lange’s iconic photograph is mis-focused, presuming the mother is the primary subject, and Weston’s pepper is dead center in the frame, violating the “Rule of Thirds.” Yes, I actually heard one (inexperienced) judge say that a particular image was better because it followed the so-called “Rule.”
It’s easy enough to ignore these competitions except for this: they can dominate the activities of the group. They can consume enormous resources that could be devoted to teaching or critiquing or even just BS-ing about photographs. They can subvert the goal of helping members become the best artists they can be into becoming winners of some arbitrary category. I suppose that’s why I’m anti-competition these days.
Well said, Tom. And between you and me, Moonrise never did anything for me 🙂
I now realize that what I had written might have been misinterpreted. When I said “Moonrise” was the winner, I was speaking with the voice of the hypothetical judge. Personally I’d much rather have “Migrant Mother” on my wall. Weston’s peppers look way too much like some of his nudes, or maybe some of his nudes look too much like his peppers. And although I admire Adams’ technique and compositional sense, I’m afraid many of his subjects–“Grand Landscapes”–don’t interest me.
Ms. Lange’s photograph offers a striking study of humanity, a skill that I admire more than technical mastery.
I understood you perfectly, Tom, but this clarification is beautifully put, thank you. 🙂