Judging from the other side

by simonrleach

It seems like every week I get an email saying “x” competition is now open for entries. With so many competitions, with so many categories in each, how do you pick which to place your time, effort and sometimes money into entering?

First a little background, this blog piece has been swimming around my brain since August I when I was asked to go to Shanghai, as a last minute replacement to judge on a photographic competition after someone had to dropout at short notice. I wasn’t offended at being second choice, I was on the same jury two years ago and in normal circumstances wouldn’t have been invited a second time. This, repeat, experience and having judged a few competitions now all with very different selection processes, started me thinking about the ways we, as entrants, could assess what to enter.

If you are a career photographer, like myself, there are certain competitions you will be aware of because of their perceived standing with your potential clients. In decades past when there were far fewer awards, it was definitely the case that by winning certain ones you could, and did in some cases, launch sustained and prosperous careers. My personal view is that now, awards are so numerous they have, for the most part, undermined the ability of any one to hold such sway. Although some will still get you noticed in the right places and may even generate a commission or two, you need to work harder than one trophy to sustain a career. For those that do not form their income from photography, I guess it’s about personal recognition and perhaps prizes or exposure or your images.

Most photographers I speak to would probably say that the terms and conditions of awards are the thing they look at first, well, maybe after the entry fees. There have been a number of competitions that have been set up purely as rights grabs: where the organisers or sponsors gain extended or outright inclusive use of all imagery submitted. If you’re not sure about the rules of a particular competition there are people you can turn to that know their stuff and are willing to help out. For example, the Artists Bill of Rights focus on career-based competitions and operates a traffic light system to guide would-be entrants. For the Salon exhibition the Royal Photographic Society, Photographic Society of America and Federation International Art Photographic all have guidelines that most worthwhile competitions will have agreed to. You can spot these competitions as they will be allowed to display the relevant logos.

For any competition you are thinking of entering I would strongly encourage you start to look at who will be judging it. Competitions that announce their judges prior to the close of entries do so in part to encourage you to enter. If they don’t and you are interested it is normally not too difficult to find out who was on the panel the last time around. The calibre of the judges is obviously important, but maybe take note of how many judges there are as well. It’s a well proven fact that decisions made by committee are based upon compromise and as such they usually produce the least controversial result. The bigger the panel, the more compromise is required to attain a final set of images. On top of this, all competitions have other limitations on what gets through the selection process. Some, I know, would like to disagree with me on this, but the truth is things like finances, physical exhibition space and catalogue size all dictate a limit to the number of images that make the final selection – and all influence the judges. What I am saying is, the smaller the group of judges the easier it is to discuss images in detail and to take risks rather than constantly seeking agreement.

Taking this a step further, and I have held this opinion for some time, I think the way to make a competition really interesting is to hand it, or perhaps each category, to a single specialist to be judge, jury, executioner. Having been told in the past that it would never be acceptable, I am really pleased to see that someone has finally had the, ahem, ’sports equipment’ to try it. I’m even more pleased it’s an organisation I value. I think the results will be interesting and attention grabbing. If you fancy having a go at appealing to one individual judge, the Association of Photographers awards are open until Friday (and no, I am not involved).

I am confident the results of the AOP awards will produce a result that not everyone likes.What it won’t be is the result of compromise. None of the judges will be heard quietly muttering that they quite like the winner, but it wasn’t their favourite!…

Reference Links:

Artists Bill of Rights

Royal Photographic Society

Photographic Society of America

Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique

Association of Photographers Awards & Open Award