Do your work with your whole heart, and you will succeed – there’s so little competition.
1 – Introduction
My previous essay focused on the subject of critiquing photographs (click here if you have not read it yet). In this essay I want to continue the reflection and the teaching I started in myCritiquingessay by presenting my views on the subject photographic competitions.
There is a relationship between photographic critiques and photographic competitions, one that fosters interesting and worthwhile remarks. There is also a relationship between vision and competition. Just like a print review is a way to find out where you are at in regards to developing your vision, a print competition is a way to gage how far along you are in regards to expressing your vision and making it visible to others.
Many remarks I made in my previous essay about critiquing photographs apply to photographic competitions. These include the difference between facts and opinions, the importance of lighting, critiquing images on screen and in print and many more. Because of that I will not repeat any of these comments here preferring to refer you toHow to Critique Photographs Constructively.
2 – What is a photographic competition?
A photographic competition is an event in which photographs are entered in order to be evaluated and given a score by judges. After scoring is completed, entrants are ranked according to their score, with the highest score being first, the lowest score being last and all the other scores placed somewhere between these two extremes.
Photographic competitions fall under the heading of art competitions. Art competitions are organized for all art mediums, not just photography.
The goal of these competitions is to find out which entries are the best. While this intent is commendable the outcome is often less so because of the inevitable shortcomings that befall art competitions. One of the goals of this essay is to point out what those shortcomings are.
Monument Valley Moonset
3 – What is your goal?
The first thing to decide prior to entering a photographic competition is what is your goal? Is it having your photographs reviewed and critiqued? Is it measuring your level of skills relative to other photographers? Is it knowing where you are at in the learning process? Is it gaining recognition or glory? Knowing what your goal is will help you decide how to approach the process of having your work reviewed. It will also define what you want to get from this process.
4 – Is it about winning or is it about learning?
You also have to decide if you are entering an art competition to win an award that you can add to your resume, or if you are entering a competition to find out where you are at in regards to your photographic journey. In the first instance the goal is to add a line to your resume and gain leverage. In the second instance the goal is to find out where you are at and how much further you have to go in order to reach the quality level you are after.
5 – The goal is to create world-class images, not to be ‘best of the worst’
Competitions by nature have a finite number of participants. The ‘winner’ is obviously the one considered to be the best among the entrants in a specific competition. This is fine if the entrants are world-class because it gives the winner a true assessment of their skills in regards to photography as a whole. However, it does not work if the entrants are ‘so so’ because it gives the winner the belief they are great when in reality they are simply the best of the ‘so so’ or, as is sometimes the case, or the ‘best of the worst’ if none of the work is very good.
On several occasions I have reviewed work from students who had won numerous ‘best of show’ awards in local camera club competitions. In each instance their work was mediocre and suffered from important technical and artistic flaws. I had to tell them so because I do not lie when I do print reviews. My fee is high and I want students to get what they pay for. I also believe that lying is doing student a disfavor. Can I lie? Yes. However my fee for doing that is significantly higher and so far nobody has been able to justify it.
Joking placed aside, telling the truth is important. How can you move on to the next step with your work if you don’t have an accurate assessment of what your current step is? For that reason, before entering an artistic competition I recommend you ask yourself if winning will give you a true assessment of your skills level.
6 – What is the Competition level?
The previous remark begs the question of who you are competing with. Are you competing against people who have skills comparable to yours, or are you competing with people who have skills significantly below or above yours? It is easy for a seasoned pro to win when competing with beginners. If so, there is no shame to lose to someone who is far more experienced than you are. Similarly, there is no glory in winning when competing against people whose skills are far inferior to yours. For these reasons it is important to consider the level of your competitors when considering the magnitude of your achievement, or your loss, as the case might be.
In any competition the value of winning is proportional to the level of your competitors. Wining against lower level competitors means less than winning against competitors of similar level as you. In the end it is about finding out how good you are and whether you are the best of the best or the best or the worst.
7 – Art is not a competitive endeavor
In any case, regardless of the level of your competitors; art is not a competitive endeavor the way sport competitions are. Deciding who is the winner in art is not a clear-cut process. There is no finish line, no stop watch, no yardstick and no other measuring device to decide who is first, second, third and so on.
Deciding who is the winner in art is largely a matter of opinion. Different judges often choose different winners. For these reasons judging art is a more like judging a boxing match than a horse race.
There is a photo finish in a horse race, leaving no doubt as to who is first, second, third and so on. Quite simply the winner is the horse that crossed the finish line first. However, things are not as clear with boxing. The three different judges can have different opinions about who was the dominant fighter. Because this opinion is reflected in their scoring, the judges may or may not agree about who is the winner, who is the loser or whether the bout is a draw.
Things are even more difficult to decide in art because deciding who is the winner can be based on personal taste, concepts of what is right and wrong, and likes or dislikes of specific art movements, approaches, styles or even vision.
While the process makes ‘sort of’ sense with amateurs and beginners, it falls apart completely when you pit professionals against professionals. Imagine a competition in which you have Ansel Adams and Edward Weston as entrants. If you were one of the judges, what would you do? The situation gets even more interesting if you throw in different subject matter. For example what happens if you add Cartier Bresson to the list of competitors? Now you have to decide not only who of Adams, Weston or Bresson is the best, you also have to decide whether you prefer landscapes, nudes or street photography. Good luck with that. Let me know how it works for you!
Monument Valley Moonrise
These remarks can be extended to any art medium. Take painting for example and imagine a competition in which we have Picasso, Dali and Monet as entrants. What do you do? Who is the best and who is the worst? How many points do you give to whom and for what?
Clearly, the judging process used in artistic competitions no longer works when this judging is applied to recognized artists rather than to ‘no names’ or to beginners. No worthwhile outcome can result from this process, besides the judges expressing their personal taste and opinions.
8 – There is a time for competition
There is a time to compete for awards. However, past a certain point competitions are no longer useful. This point is when a photographer starts to express a personal vision and acquire a personal style. At that point if the vision and the style of that photographer are truly unique, more harm than good will come from entering competitions. Judges look for what they know to be good, and if your style is new they don’t know if it is good or bad and thus are more likely to reject it than embrace it.
9 – Mismatch between comments and scoring
Another problem with fine art competitions are the differences between the judges’ comments and scoring. Judges’ comments are not always reflected in their scores. The comments may be more positive than the scoring, or vice versa, raising questions in the mind of the competitors about the actual value of the comments, the scoring, or both.
Judges sometimes try to ‘wash off’ the impact of their comments and scoring by saying that these reflect their personal opinion only and that ultimately it is the artist who has to decide whether their work has merit or not. The problem with such comments is that the judges might as well say ‘don’t mind my judging because in the end it means nothing at all.’ Ultimately they have to assume responsibility for their decisions or take the risk of sending mixed messages and confusing both the artist and the audience about the value of the work they are judging.
Monument Valley Shadow
10 – Judges are overworked
You also have to be realistic in regards to what you expect to get from a photographic competition. Expecting judges to offer a detailed critique or a fair score when they are evaluating up to 60 photographs in an hour is unrealistic.
As a comparison, when I do a one-on-one print review I take one hour to review a group of 6 to 10 prints. When I do a group print review, in the context of a workshop for example, I spend 10 to 20 minutes reviewing 5 prints from each student. If I was judging a competition I would have to severely reduce the time I spend on each print and thereby reduce the quality of my comments as well as the accuracy of my judging.
To expect personalized attention and a detailed evaluation from competition judges looking at prints for a minute or so all day long is naive. All that one can realistically expect is a rough idea of whether the judges like your work or not.
11 – Marketing
One cannot ignore the importance that winning awards in art competitions can play when marketing one’s work. Many art collectors are unsure as to why they should buy the work of an up-and -coming artist; therefore knowing that this artist won significant awards is often a deciding factor.
Similarly, awards can be used to justify higher prices, either through price increases following the receipt of specific awards, or by placing oneself into an upper price echelon and using awards to justify this placement.
Some art shows do require artists to enter art competitions set up by the show organizers. Entering these competitions is part of being accepted in these shows. Participation is therefore obligatory and artists have no other option but to enter the contest. The good news is that winning an award in this type of competition is a significant boost to sales. It is good for business and there is therefore no valid reason to resent it. It is however important to keep in mind that such awards are more related to marketing than to actual artistic value.
Monument Valley Sunrise
12 – Conclusion
The purpose of this essay is to present my views on photographic print competitions, not to change the world of print competitions. However, if one is so inclined, implementing some of the ideas presented here will certainly go a long ways towards making things better.
I have to saymea culpabecause I competed in photographic competitions myself. I did so in college before I knew any better so to speak. I won numerous awards right off the bat and this made me doubt the validity of these awards. If winning is easy it undermines the value of the achievement. If the achievement is undermined then why compete in the first place? In the end I quit and moved on to working on achieving my vision rather than trying to impress others through winning awards.
Later on, after I made photography my profession, I was asked to be a judge in numerous competitions. To this day I have never accepted to do so. I know that the way art competitions is set up will not allow me to be fair or even to give proper attention to each entry. Therefore I prefer to excuse myself rather than do a job that I will not be proud of.
Personally, my opinion is to either stay away from art competitions all together or to severely limit one’s participation to such competitions while keeping in mind the shortcomings I pointed out.
If your goal is to engage in competitive endeavors, I strongly suggest horse racing, boxing, automobile competition, tennis, long or short distance running, target shooting, darts, pool, pinball, electronic games or any other activity whose purpose is deciding who wins and who loses. Art is a poor substitute for those activities because the purpose of art is primarily to express an emotional response to a subject, not to demonstrate one’s superiority against other practitioners.
When approached as an outlet for vision and creativity, art can be extremely rewarding. However, when approached as a competitive endeavor art is often frustrating as this essay demonstrates and as many art competition entrants will testify. However, for me art is not about ‘winning.’ Art is about expressing oneself. The victory, if there is one, is in being able to do so. Success in art comes not from outdoing others but from outdoing oneself.
13 – Going further
How to find and develop your personal vision is one of the concepts taught in the Personal Vision Mastery workshop on DVD. You can read a detailed description of the contents and download the table of contentsat this link
14 – About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art PhotographyandHow Photographs are sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on my websiteat this link
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com. You will receive 40 free eBooks immediately after subscribing.
I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org