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.
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.