Photography Contests – The Fix Is In

- - Contests

PART 1

I got this question from a reader recently:

I have entered some of the contests but I always get the feeling that they are fixed to some degree. I have talked to other photographers and they feel the same way.

It always seems to be the same people winning over and over again. Particularly up here in Canada where the market is smaller. I’m guessing that its just the luck of the draw and the more entries you put in the more chances you have because sometimes the photography that does win is crappy. For example photos of celebrities no matter how bad they are always seem to win. I’m guessing that judges also know who the photographers work is considering how high profile some of it is.

I know this sounds kind of bitter and don’t get me wrong because I love to see great photography win and I love seeing stuff that inspires me but sometimes… its frustrating seeing what wins.

Yes, I believe the contests are fixed to some degree. I don’t blame the organizers or the judges necessarily, it really comes down to the herd mentality of the photography business.

First, you have the taste of the judges. Many are hiring from the same pool of photographers and even if they are not there’s the simple math that if two judges kind of like something, then they agree and you have a winner. As opposed to one judge loving something and another hating it. That would be the loser. Add into this the simple economics of the photography business where the people in charge, the owners CEO’s, CFO’s and EIC’s, define successful photography as photography found in successful magazines.

Second, you really can’t look at contests as a source of new talent. They really amount to a nice group back slap for another year in the business doing good work.

Celebrity photography is another matter. Not only is it quite difficult to gain access to celebrities it’s also impossible to get them to participate in an interesting picture. Therefore the bar if much lower for me when it comes to celebrity photography. I know many photographers prefer to focus on the technical aspects of a picture but for me subject matter is 2/3 the battle. Access is a huge deal and hiring people who not only are able to gain access but convince people to do extraordinary things was always high on my agenda.

So, while I don’t believe awesome, incredible photography is hitting the cutting room floor I know some really boring stuff makes the cut because of familiarity and subject matter. That being said, I’ve always looked at the results from contests and found interesting photography that I didn’t know about.

PART 2

I got an email from Geoff Smith about a contest called the Canteen Awards that he recently participated in and thought I might like. After reading this statement on the website my interest was piqued:

Naked Judging Exposed: In too many photo contests it feels like the fix is in: the outsiders’ entry fees pay for the insiders’ prizes. Canteen is confronting this feeling head on. We exhibit the winning images alongside the comments of our judges, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman and photographer Matthew Porter—even when those comments clash.

Geoff, who incidentially was a runner-up in the contest (congrats man) told me that Canteen is a literary magazine published in Brooklyn, NY and he decided to enter because “the entry fee was only $15 and you got your choice of issue of the magazine as well (the cover price is $10).” Now, not only are they publishing the different rounds of cuts in the contest along with judges comments (here), which is unbelievably insightful and transparent. According to Geoff “they published longer versions of the judges comments, essays really, in the print issue (#6, due out Aug. 1).” And, gave him a full page to respond to the judges comments.

If that weren’t enough, they’re having a show at Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO Aug. 4th-29th, called Naked Judging Exposed: The 2010 Canteen Awards in Photography (reception Aug. 19th) where Geoff says “They also put me in the show and they are exhibiting my entire 6-image entry which, for me, is just bizarre and awesome and I can’t thank them enough, but also shows that they are really walking the transparency walk and not just using the trope of changing how things are done as a marketing or promotional device.”

I think we have a new standard for photography contests. Nice work Canteen.

There Are 39 Comments On This Article.

  1. I actually win or place in these things with some regularity, so I have a different point of view than the writer. The idea that they are fixed is one that I don’t agree with. However, each contest does seem to have its own point of view. I will tend to send in different entries to a CA contest than to a AP-26 contest. As someone who works with a number of people who are judges, the handicap for me is that if I am entering a piece that one of the judges assigned, that judge is not able to vote on the work. Sort of a negative fix.

    Where I do agree with the writer, is that being outside of the main photographic circles is a disadvantage. The photo editor/art buyer world is quite small. People seem to know each other, to share who they like, and to keep close tabs on what is getting published where. If you are known in that world, it is a leg up. However, one of the things that gives a photo editor/art buyer tremendous satisfaction is to be able to discover new talent. This is something I hear all the time in meetings. I will see a photo on someone’s board, ask about it, and the editor or art buyer will go into great detail about the photographer. That works to the advantage of a fresh talent.

    But image quality trumps everything. If you are a living in an igloo and have never heard of NYC, but send in the most amazing unique emotionally powerful photos of your neighbor igloo dwellers, you will probably do well.

    Lastly, there are the fees, and the whole proliferation of these contests. It used to be that there were just 2 or 3, now it seems like there is one every week. I have to wonder how much of PDNs net comes from the contests they run. I mean really, what is the business they are in? And does it really matter to anyone if you win an award in one of their hundreds of sub categories? I think not. In fact, my own view is that these contests are becoming a sort of mind-numbing spam. There are so many, that unless you are in something of weight, like the CA Photo Annual, and I am not even sure how relevant that is anymore, how valuble are they? People may be better served by taking the money they spend in these contests and making a nice promo to send to a couple hundred people.

    • @David Harry Stewart,

      Nicely written comment David. I couldn’t agree more about the plethora of contest of late and PDN and all of their 100s, seemingly, ever year. I get so many emails and reminders and extensions that I’ve put nearly all of them in my junk folder.

  2. This was a timely article for me. I too am trying to break into the business and see so many contests is staggering. Just yesterday I was looking at this one:

    http://competition.betterphotography.com/EnterAwards/index.php

    It’s an Australian magazine, very good quality publication. But I went through all the winners from last year and even though it’s opened to people from anywhere to enter, I could only find 2 winners that were not from Australia. Seemed a bit off to me. Not just that but in the top 50 in one category I found the same guy had about 8 images. Not only that but two of them are almost exactly the same image of a waterfall, just slightly different cropping.

    And I also found that most of the winning images had a very similar style, not all but most. Could be that’s the style there now but also seemed odd to me.

    Anyone ever enter this contest? Again it’s only $15.

    • @Darlene,
      Someone mentioned your post, so I thought I would add a reply as the Better Photography editor – the reason for so many Australian winners is the majority of entrants are Australian. We had very few ‘overseas’ entrants, but we hope this will change in time. Photos are judged anonymously so the judges don’t know who the photographer is or where they come from. Hope this allays your fears…

      • @Peter Eastway, Hi Peter! We actually met at the AIPP competition in 2002. I was the Queensberry rep at the time and was there with Malcolm. You showed me around the competition and how judging worked.

        Thanks for your answer – I thought it was something like that but I know I had a subscription for a while and thought more over here would too and would enter. You Aussies know how to have great prizes that’s for sure. I could use a new lens or body.

        Can you answer as to why such similar images both placed in the top 50 and were allowed to both be entered? The only difference I can see is the bottom part has been darkened on the second image. Seems sorta like stacking the deck.

        cheers
        Darlene

        • @Darlene, Hi Darlene, if there were two photos very similar, I guess the entrant was trying to stack the deck and we’ve missed it. We judge the photos one by one, and they are sorted randomly, so we mightn’t notice it as we go through them at the time. In our AIPP awards, we have stricter rules about entering two photos of the same subject, but sometimes photographers like to see how different versions of their photos go, and that’s what I’m thinking has happened here. Not being a ‘professional’ awards, I think it’s good to get feedback and see if one version is better appreciated than another, but I take your point on having two in the top 50 – we’ll keep an eye on that!

          • @Peter Eastway, I hate to tell you but there’s two in the top 50 in the People category very similar too. Same photographer, people inside a train shot through the window. #11 and #18.

            Do you remember when I came to Perth that year?

  3. I think this touches on a wider issue, that of photographers as revenue stream, there is a whole industry out there now catering to the newly huge number of people trying to get recognition as photographers, entering awards, entering competitions, going to folio reviews, paying for pages in magazines that are allegedly sent to ‘Photo Commissioners’ etc. I think Photographers need to be very wary of the ‘Anyone can enter as long as your entry fee reaches us by the deadline’ attitude that is now common.

    I think there is little doubt that magazines and some web sites are increasingly relying on Photo competitions to keep them afloat. The entry fees are increasingly substantial and go way beyond covering the administration costs of the award or competition.

    • @Nick Turpin,

      In the past few days I’ve been discussing this a lot – today even and now again. Back in school I was told that the only tried and true method of making money in this business was to sell something to photographers, not make photographs. You are completely correct in your thoughts about this IMO. It’s not bad business, but I am inundated with people trying to sell me their social media workshops, consultants, photography workshops in general, websites, search engine optimization, contests ..etc. Beware those with anything online that has the word photography and your name and/or email address. The worst part is that the net is cast way too wide and their efforts marketing to me are for nothing. In the end it’s spam and noise.

      Anyone remember the Hosemaster? That guy did well.

    • @Nick Turpin, Exactly, these contests are revenue generators. While I have been in Art of Photography, juried exhibits, and a few other “contests”, I think the only really significant one now for commercial work is CommArts Photo Annual. Outside of that PDN seem to be saturating the market, and the former JPG Magazine model was like a continual monthly contest. Lots of this is crowd sourcing at its’ finest.

    • @Nick Turpin, I am in full agreement with your assessment Nick. I have a friend who has been foolishly entering these contests for some time. Recently, he has gotten smarter—before he enters, he emails the administrators with the basic questions—things that they have conveniently left out of their advertisement. Like, how many winners’ work will actually be chosen for the exhibit? Is the judging done in a “blind” manner? About how many entrants usually compete, based on their past contests? Believe it or not, most of the people who run these outfits answer him. If my friend discovers that hundreds of photographers will enter, but only very few of them will get their work exhibited, he stops in his tracks. Why waste another 40 dollars? The head honchos at these contests know that if they were more open about “the numbers” and the probable results, they would hardly get anyone to enter. As far as I am concerned, many of these competitions are based on a twisted business proposition—give us your money, because we need it to sustain our budget. And if you are the lucky, then we might do you a favor, and hang one of your pictures. And under their breath, they are muttering “thank god for the suckers out there”.

  4. When we go from three contests a year to thirty, you know something has dramatically changed. It’s obvious. Money. There are FAR more advanced amateur photographers than pros, and many of them are ready to put up the entry fee to support these contests, not knowing, in my humble opinion, that they have little to no chance of winning.
    If you are a family portrait photographer in the middle of the country and you enter the portrait division, and what wins is 8×10 celebrity portraits, you never had a chance
    Now we have kids contests, babies, dogs, kids with dogs, babies with dogs, portraits, commercial, editorial, black and white only, color only, etc, etc, and the relevance has been greatly diminished. However, on the flip side, maybe we do need all these contests so that the person shooting portraits in middle America and the 8×10 celebrity portrait people can compete on an equal playing field.

    As for the fix….man, I’ve heard some stories over the years.

  5. I think this entirely depends on the competition in question. I had my first experience of acting as a Judge this year in the AOP awards. I can state that there were no such shenanigans in the bit I was involved in. Actually we had an overseer who is probably there in part to prevent such things happening. My only beef about the process is that my particular favorites didn’t win… but maybe I was the one who was wrong.

    I feel less confident about many other competitions. Having said that I’ve had entries at least get placed, or win and I’m nobody famous, so I like to arrogantly think that the quality of the work does matter.

    What can’t be doubted is that all of these competitions are flawed in a profound way, they inevitably overlook great work. Whatever procedure is in place there will be errors of judgement and taste. Its a messy thing.

    If the work is great, and it surprises people it can win prizes (but not all of them, it is a numbers game).

    I’d also point out that for the more jaded judges who have been doing this for years, many of them would like nothing more than to be able to say ‘I helped find photographer X’ who becomes the next great discovery in the photography or art world. Believe it or not, many competitions are run and judged by people who love photography.

  6. This begs the question of where do ABs, ADs, PEs, etc. (folks who hire photographers) actually look to identify new talent? Clearly there are a lot of outsider photographers with talent and vision. Most are virtual unknowns within the industry. Surely there must be a few people willing to step beyond the usual suspects pool and take a chance on fresh talent. How do those individuals operate?

    I tend to agree with Nick Turpin that the overwhelming majority of contests appear to be revenue generation vehicles. Others are invitational for people who are already established photographers. And even if you do win, the sheer volume of contests seems to drown out any real bragging rights.

  7. Photography contests are very subjective and yes, a lot of factors play a role in the picking of “winners” including compromise and the judge’s personal biases.

    I don’t think most contests for rigged, but I do tend to stay away from most as so many have popped up in recent years. I only enter a few a year, mainstream and very well respected.

  8. I have felt lately, that the “fix is in” for photography contests, especially the more high profile contests, like the CA Photo Annual.

    And it’s not just the shots of celebrities that seem to garner a disproportionate number of winners, but also the “celebrity photographer”. By that I mean the well known photographer, shooting high profile campaigns with nice, high budgets. If you’re given those great opportunities and the creative freedom to create great photos, the playing field is not really level.

    I think there’s fantastic talent at every level, but I keep seeing the same names over and over again. And I say this honestly, some of the work does not deserve to be in the winners circle.

    I actually canceled my subscription to CA after twenty-six years because the results of their annuals became quite predictable.

    Lastly, increasing revenue stream is via contests is so obvious, it would be funny if it wasn’t so ridiculous.

  9. Years, OK I admit decades ago I worked on the Art Director Club of Los
    Angeles (ADLA) show. I was a volunteer that helped to lay out the work and pick it up and herd the judges.

    It allowed me to hob-nob with top art directors and see all of the work before the judges.

    What mattered the most was the personal taste and mix of the judges. Since there is always a last minute cancellation by one or more of the judges the mix is really a crap-shoot.

    There was some bias against cutting-edge work. It often had a mix of love #10 and hate #1 responses while the good work received uniform #8 scores.

  10. @David Harry Stewart

    Very often a new talent is just a normal or good photographer, not a very good photographer. And the “new talent” plate is the declaration that the photographer has been accepted in the oligarchic business system, then the system pumps up the photographer fame. That is easy.

  11. I also share the opinion that any photographer ( good, bad, mediocre) who photographs celebrities will be considered good no matter what they create, simply because they’re photographing a celebrity. Especially, when it comes to documentary work involving celebrities. That is, if it’s even done today.

    For instance (and this is just one example), Tony Voccaro’s newly discovered images of Jackson Pollock are not superb or memorable, and there are certainly far better images of Pollock that exist already.

    However, since they’re pictures of Pollock that have never been seen by anyone (and there is a reason why they haven’t been seen by anyone or were never printed in Look magazine) someone, or as Daniel said, the oligarchic business system automatically thinks they’re worthy of praise and an exhibition. So let’s pump them up so everybody else thinks they’re great.

    I went to an exhibit at Shepard Fairey’s gallery in Los Angeles one time to see the work of an extremely famous celebrity photographer. There must of been at least a hundred images hanging in this exhibit and out of all of these celebrity images I looked at, there was only one that I had wished I had taken. I usually measure the greatness of a photography by how jealous I get of their work. I was not jealous this day and just asked, “Why?”

    Celebrity photographers do take bad pictures and not every photo of a celebrity is worthy of being shared, printed, exhibited, or receiving first place in a contest. And it would be nice if some people realized this.

  12. scott Rex Ely

    Think gatekeepers. Here is a paragraph from R. Keith Sawyer’s book Explaining Creativity,p196

    “Every artist becomes known from works that reflect the standards of of the gatekeepers in the field. Especially with mass produced works like books, movies and music CDs, only works that are selected by the field for distribution ever reach a wide audience. The general public comes to know a a creator”as selected by” multiple layers of intermediaries. Because evaluation and selection are critical parts of the creative process, these intermediaries become collaborators in the work.”

    Dr. Sawyer goes on to quote Becker; ” Art worlds, rather than artists make works of art” (Becker,1982, p198).

  13. Some years ago, I witnessed a PDN competition runner-up ask the ed of PDN if she could explain the judging process so he could better understand. Her response was defensive and aggressive and left us with the sense that all it is, is a money-making venture. To hear that some competitions actually provide feedback and comments is refreshing and I would personally take a little longer deciding which of the many comps to enter based on how transparent the judging process is.

  14. Garry Winogrand and Roy DeCarava independently discussed their experiences as judges (back in the 1970′s).

    Winogrand’s was for a national grant for photographers (think it was National Endowment for the Arts but can’t be sure). He said it was like horse-trading: “You vote for mine and I’ll vote for yours.” He said he’d never do it again, nor would they ever ask him again.

    DeCarava’s was for a NYS CAPS Photography Fellowship (if my memory is correct). He had a similar experience to Winogrand and described the process as awful and painful – and one hw eould never repeat.

    In the mid-1990′s for a VERY prestigious contest, judging news photographs – word is when the panel was considering a photo for the top prize a panelist (who worked for a esteemed NY broadsheet) blurted out “We can’t award the prize to that photo because it is a New York Post photo.”

  15. Don’t worry about dirty tricks but do take the time to study the judges and the contest itself from other years if you can. Otherwise it is just a game of chance. Also, I steer away from obvious ‘fundraising’ type contests. They are mostly to some extent attempts to raise money but some are more obvious and seem less about establishing a benchmark or result–just the cash. Unless you want to support the institution. My .02.

    I recently entered a contest which my intuition told me ahead of time would be about a certain style and voila! it was.

    You really cannot blame someone else for not exercising your common sense and your own ability to observe and make some educated guesses.

  16. I take the Zen approach. I don’t enter anything. I don’t email bomb or do mailers. It’s like Spam now. All of it, IMO. My major gigs have been gotten through footwork, social networking and pitching stories WITH a writer. When it comes to contests, it’s all a scam and the chances of you getting a job out of are like 0. Even the PDN 40 under 40, Photoannual or the American Photography series drums up much work. People think that winning a pet or portrait contest is some kind of ticket. It’s not. I toyed with the idea of entering the Blurb bookcontest with my newest project. Then I started to look at the dates. There were something like 2,000 book entries this year. And they were going to inform the finalists in like 3 weeks. Impossible. Sorry, but it is. Say there’s 10 judges, they have to at least look at every entry once, THEN agree on which of the almost 2,000 to cut, then narrow it from there. In like a month.
    It’s a carnival game with that preys on suckers.
    I think there is only one contest that I would enter again. It’s the National Portrait Gallery prize. That’s it. The judging is transparent and you have to send a PRINT to the UK. Serious inquiries only.

  17. Is anyone on here going to the Canteen event? Sounds like it will be an awesome event… I’m going to try to make it myself; thanks for the article and bringing it to my/our attention.
    Really is a fantastic and fresh idea to actually post judges comments – and then allowing Geoff to reply!? – for everyone to see. If only we got this kind of transparency from other things in life! Also kudos to the judges for being willing to do let their comments be posted. Sounds like in a lot of other contests we wouldn’t find them so willing, unfortunately.
    Anyway, go Canteen – you just got yourself a new subscriber.

  18. As the former editor of a photographer magazine (American Photo) that ran a yearly contest, perhaps I can add perspective. All contests are different, of course, and I can only speak to the way we did ours.

    Our contest was aimed at pro and amateur photographers. We wanted to see work from photographers we’d never heard of. But we also wanted to show that we were the art magazine that well-known pros wanted to be seen in. We promoted the contest widely through ads, in the magazine and online. But I also actively promoted the contest to professionals on my personal mailing list–a much more personal invitation to submit work. I also personally emailed magazine photo editors and asked them to submit work on behalf of photographers that they published in the past year.

    So was the fix in against all the amateurs and unknowns who were also submitting entries? Yes and no. We had no “favorites” when we chose the winners…and we spent many, many hours in the judging–primarily in the culling process, before the finalists were turned over to a jury.

    But looking back, it was a flawed procedure–the flaw being that we were unfairly pitting names like Annie Leibovitz against names we’d never heard of.

  19. At this point I’m not sure what to think. Being a young photographer with a limited budget, it’s hard enough. It’s just not possible for me to afford to enter the plethora of contests. Maybe last year I entered a couple. This year it was five. So, do I continue down this road or do I focus on just a few major contests a year?

    I almost feel like it’s not necessarily if I win or get work from a win, but it’s the exposure I will get. The idea that I have to have my name floating around as much as possible. I could be wrong. Maybe that’s the allure of the contest for the “emerging” photographer.

    I’ve also noticed that most of the contests that I’ve entered have had their deadlines extended. Why? Surely, it’s not because they don’t have enough entries. Seems to me that the hype builds and they capitalize off another 10 days or so for entries.

  20. I have been across some fake competitions. They take entry fees and never show up. Some are genuine but dont protect the copyrights of images submitted.

  21. I’d like the bright and experienced veterans in our field to draw up list of guidelines that defines what legitimate contests are — with red flags clearly called to caution the inexperienced, the hopeful, and the naive. Sagar (and I bet he’s the talented rare aircraft shooter who should win – Hi Sagar) brings up a point that reflects, in my opinion, the ultimate purpose of many of these contests sponsored by companies and organizations : They are a transparent ploy to obtain clearly released stock images for their image data base. It’s as though the marketing directors all attended the same conference and heard at the same time: “Contests! Get free good art, build your fan-base, get publicity, and your magazine / book, all at the same time!” For example, in my email box today are two appeals from national non-profits whose animal rescue work is ground-breaking and greatly admirable. Both groups seek image use in perpetuity in any and all media ever conceived with no compensation and one wants to republish the image in a book, to be sold later. In one case you get a tee shirt. In another, you get a calendar. When hefty entry fees a la PDN contests are extracted, it just adds to the offense.

  22. argh. i missed the july post on this subject providing what i wished for. can’t keep…. up….. drown…ing. thank you.

  23. Thanks so much for posting this question. Very interesting. I don’t enter certain contests because everyone in my circle of pro photogs knows they are more amateur oriented or the winners too trendy or known to the judges. It’s funny because in this economy it doesn’t take much to figure out that contests are money makers. I stick to 3 a year. Coupe Magazine is a great one.. other ones that are off the radar where you know that the people operating the contests are doing it more out of their love for photography rather than making a quick buck.

    As one poster said… lower the fee the better !