What’s the biggest scam in photography? Judging purely on angry comments I get and see (here’s some on PDN Pulse) when the topic is raised, it’s photo contests with portfolio reviews running a close second. Of course the first time I even mentioned contests on the blog I was caught a little off guard because I thought the system worked pretty well. Sure, I’ve been completely skunked before when I sent in what I thought was our best work (I’m talking photo editing here not pictures I’ve taken) but eventually we started winning and the awards paragraph on my resume began to fill up.
The two big contests in my opinion are American Photography (the book) and the PDN photography annual (World Press Photo is of course highly respected but there was never any reference to pull off the shelf when looking for photographers). Both have parties for the winners and the judges are always people you want to get your work in front of. I know that commercial photography has a couple that are highly respected as well (CA and Kelly Awards I think).
The reasons for entering a respected contest are clear. Getting your work in front judges, getting your work published if it wins, using the recognition as part of your marketing effort and attending a party to celebrate great photography. I can assure you that any photographers receiving recognition in the contests I mentioned got extra consideration for assignments. It’s simple reinforcement that the photographers work is good. They’re also used as a handy reference to pair the name of the photographer with the work you remember from the past year.
Recently a photographer brought the Billboard Photography Contest to my attention (here) because the deadline to announce winners had passed and he couldn’t find out who won. I made several inquiries myself and eventually got to John Gimenez of PDN Custom Media and Events who answered my emails but never got us closer to finding the results. Eventually they issued a new call for entries a put a link up to the past winners which only said coming soon. When I checked this morning it was finally working (here).
Upon, closer inspection of the new contest leads me to believe this one is purely for profit. I can’t figure out what the prizes are, who the judges are and paying extra for a deadline extension on digital entries is complete horseshit.
I think there’s room for improvement in photography contests or at least room for something completely different and innovative, but there are a couple hurdles to get over first.
1. There needs to be a barrier to entry. You can read what it’s like to plow through the 81,000 entries to World Press Photo (here). Usually the entry fee serves this purpose. If it’s high enough people limit the work they submit but this also limits the potential field.
2. You need to attract qualified judges. If you’ve ever sat in a room or at a computer screen and plowed through entries it doesn’t take long for the fatigue to creep in. This is work people. Getting busy photo editors to volunteer for this means the stuff they’re looking at needs to be of high quality.
3. The final product needs to be published in a way that’s useful to the community. From my own experience running a free promo contest on this blog, this is not easy. Getting busy creatives to look at hundreds of finalists from a contest they’ve never heard of is nearly impossible (a few people did land jobs because of it so it was ultimately successful).
Since 2009 will be the year when the media industry begins to remake itself you have to believe there are better ways to do everything. Photography contests seem like a good place to start.