To Compete or Not to Compete

What is your stance on photography competitions? I have just sent off one of my projects to a competition. No, not an open call for submission to an exhibition, but a competition where you can win something, apart from exposure. I thought long and hard about it. Was it worth it? After all, there was a hefty entrance fee. For me, that is usually the big turn-off. Charging for a competition to me reeks of a money-making exercise with little benefit to the participants. Or is there?

Probably the biggest benefit of all competitions is the fact that they motivate you to get off your arse and *do* something. That was certainly the case for me. It is now nearly a year since I finished college, and I have not worked on any project consistently since then – apart from the higgledy-piggledy commercial jobs that I have done here and there. There are ideas floating around in my brain for various projects, but without a tangible goal in mind – such as an exhibition submission, or a college deadline, for that matter – I have been slow on converting the ideas into practice. Paying for competition entry or not – submitting to a competition at least made me rake through my previous work to identify worthy projects. Having just sent my submission off, I feel a slight buzz of energy. All is possible – maybe I could be the winner? Participating in a competition fills you with hope and motivation. And is gratifying in itself as you have at least accomplished fulfilling the competition criteria and submitting your work. You have made the conscious decision to get your work “out there”. That’s one step better than just shooting and then leaving your images on your hard drive.
Which brings me to benefit number 2: That is the beauty of a competition, anyway – you are often allowed to draw from older work that has been created within a given time-frame. And thus you do not need to produce something new and original, but can submit from your archive. There is no excuse *not* to take part, I guess.
Are these intangible benefits worth a € 60 entry fee? Depends on whether you are an eternal optimist like myself, or not. But even then I am not so foolish to submit my stuff to any old competition. I *do* take a look at the competition before I decide to enter. The cost seems to be the main concern. In general, I would not pay more than € 20 for a single entry. With limited funds at my disposal, I have to choose wisely. Apart from cost, there are other determining factors

I doubt that you can get rich with competition victories. But I do think it makes sense to have a look at what you *might* win, if your photography convinces the judges. After all, what use is it to be considered the winner – and then receive a piece of equipment that you already own? Likewise, it is a good idea to check how many prizes there are in relation to the pull of the competition. If a popular contest draws in thousands of submissions but there is only one prize on offer – the already-slim chances are even slimmer. Also check whether there is at least some sort of exhibition/publication part of the prize. A bit of exposure is the least you would want to expect when winning or running up in a competition.

It is also useful to check the requirements first. How much work is involved in getting your images into the format that the competition organisers want to see? A simple resize or a conversion from raw to jpg is just a matter of seconds, but anything beyond that may not be worth your while.

Lastly – the judges
There are a great many competitions out there. I tend to go for the ones that are either organised by institutions that are involved in photography or art in some shape or form – with them you have an idea what the expectations are. You can check what kind of photography they have awarded with prizes previously, you can see the style that they prefer. Check the names on the judging panel. I trust those competitions that have managed to attract judges from the industry – they will know what they are looking at and can tell the fluke from the carefully planned project. In a slight show of arrogance I will admit that I would prefer to be judged a winner by a renowned photographer than by the CEO of the sponsoring coffee emporium – but hey, that is me being a total snob.

As regards  my own submission to the competition today – I followed my own advice (…): there are a good few valuable prizes, an exhibition, and a distinguished judging panel from the industry. What’s more, part of the competition entry funds a charity. Even though I will most probably not be successful with my submission, at least I can rest easy – I have done some good while fulfilling my fantasy.

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