Photo contests are often very divisive. You're happy when you win and furious when your work is snubbed. They can be so subjective yet they draw people in like moths to a flame. Why?
From the time I was a very young kid back in Australia, competitive sport was always part of my life. From the age of five, I started playing competitive soccer and that led to me taking up competitive cricket with school and other local clubs. I also played competitive rugby league until I was about 15, and on the academic side of things, I was often chosen to submit written work for local school contests.
Thus, from a very young age, I was well aware of the joys of winning and the disappointments of losing, and I understood clearly that you couldn’t always win and you had to learn how to lose graciously and respect your opponents, regardless of results. Despite these helpful life lessons, as I got into my 20s and started traveling more, my interests in competitive sport declined somewhat and I eventually found the idea of competition rather distasteful and completely lacking in any real objectivity.
Competition Can Have Such a Negative Impact
One reason I didn’t like competitive sports was because of it what it made governments and organizations do. For example, the horrific doping regime of East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s and more recently Russia, which was banned from competing as an official nation due to its doping program. They were both instances of state-sponsored cheating. Closer to home for me, in 2010 the Melbourne Storm rugby league team was found guilty of systemically cheating the salary cap in order to gain an unfair financial advantage over its rivals, which resulted in them being stripped of a number of titles they had won during those years of cheating. The club and its players of that time are still tarnished with the cheating brush.
Competition in sport also makes athletes do bad things. Fallen heroes such as Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson are examples of individuals who stopped at nothing in order to gain an advantage and win. This resulted in lying, cheating, deception, and ultimately, disgrace. In almost every sport these days, from the amateur level to the professional level, individuals are taking matters into their own hands and cheating in order to beat their opponents and win whatever competition they are in.
Finally, competitive sports make fans and people do horrible things as well. Gambling rips families and homes apart yet it is front and center of so many sports these days and gambling companies actually sponsor many clubs and competitions. Also, fighting among fans and hooliganism is commonplace in many sports, particularly British soccer, and more recently this has spilled over to social media, where fans fight with each other and abuse each other, and even go so far as abusing players from opposition teams or teams that they support. In short, as I got older I simply didn’t like what competition engendered in all facets of society, so I distanced myself as far from competition as I could.
With all that in mind, I wonder why people enter photography contests, some incredibly often. For me, they are not objective in any way, and very often we don’t even know what criteria are being used to judge. However, many people love to enter photo contests — I also entered one recently too — so I want to examine some of the reasons why people might do so.
The first reason I think people enter photo contests is for some kind of validation. When we start our journey as beginners, we all dream of becoming skilled photographers who perhaps might one day make an actual living from our images. However, as we progress and improve our skills it’s very difficult to get a clear understanding of how much we are improving. Sure, we might ask our dear old mum or our faithful kids whether they like our photos or not, but their answers aren’t really going to help us objectively or give us the kind of constructive criticism we need. I mean, it’s highly unlikely that your loving husband or wife is going to tell us that our photos are utter tosh, right?
Thus, one way to get some kind of idea on how far our skills have come or how our photos rank alongside our peers is to enter them in contests, where they are judged by people and industry experts we don’t know. The judges in some competitions will very often offer commentary on our images and that way we can see what we need to improve on, or where our strengths might lie. If we are lucky enough to get a prize then it can certainly add some kind of validation or confirmation that what we’re doing is on the right track.
Of course, the flip side of that is if you don’t win a prize or get any kind of constructive feedback then you might feel invalidated and completely worthless. This is rather silly because contests are completely subjective and one person’s meat is always another person’s poison, including photo competition judges. Be that as it may, it is human nature to take failure in our endeavors rather unkindly.
Build Your C.V
Another reason people might enter photo contests is that they can help to strengthen your resume. There’s nothing that screams pro photographer more than a bunch of high-placed finishes in photo contests, especially well-known ones. Just like people with university degrees who put all kinds of letters after their name, people who do well in photo competitions love to put all their achievements in their C.V. In turn, all those great results can help photographers get work when clients look at their websites and see a long list of winning awards. In this day and age when everyone claims to be a photographer, having a body of favorable photo competition results can help photographers stand out from the crowd, enhance reputations, and result in more work opportunities.
Good results in photo contests can also help you in your job. For example, in my case, I work in academia, where the mantra of "publish or perish" is standard for many universities around the world. There is an onus on us to publish regularly, but there are not many peer-reviewed journals specifically dedicated to photography. Therefore, one alternative way to show you are active and highly regarded by your peers in the world of photography is to enter photo contests. Of course, that only works if you land prizes or favorable results, but if you do so, such recognition often goes down very well when the annual review comes around.
Cash and Prizes
Finally, there’s the obvious reason of cash incentives or prizes. Many photo contests around the world offer handsome cash rewards as well as offers of new photography gear. We all know how expensive this passion of ours is so any opportunity to get free gear or cash cannot be sniffed at or condescendingly ignored. Who doesn’t want that fabulous new lens or that carbon fiber tripod for free? Naturally, the greater the prize, the higher number of entrants, which means winning is more difficult. But the promise of extrinsic rewards, especially money, will always attract people.
To sum up, I’m not particularly fond of competition in any form, whether it’s sport or photography. Nonetheless, competition is part of every person’s life in almost every aspect of society and many people would have it no other way. Photography contests are not something that I thrive on but I do enter them now and then because of work reasons, which I touched on above.
What about you? What do you think of photography contests and what have been your experiences if you’ve entered any? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.