The Disappointment of Photography Competitions

Last night I attended the opening night and award ceremony of a local but well established, well run and decent sized arts' exhibition. I wasn't going to enter but with some encouragement I decided, as a relative unknown here, that it would help me continue to build my profile in the area. I then set to work on five pieces. Some I had already printed. Others I soft proofed, hard proofed, tried different papers, made sure I was 100% happy with them. Then I made a grave error. I got my hopes up.

Being a local show I wasn't "competing" with tens of thousands of other photographers as I had previously in Landscape Photographer of the Year (LPOTY), etc and so thought I must have a decent chance. If I didn't win, I reassured myself that at least I would place. So when someone won 3rd, someone else won 2nd and yet another stepped up for the 1st prize I'm pretty sure the disappointment was etched on my face as I graciously clapped the winners. I wonder if they heard my ego popping at the back? What a fool I felt for letting my imagination run away with me. Misguided? Complacent? Arrogant? Yes, no, maybe.

I have no intention of talking about the competition itself. I could debate the result. Of course I loved my pictures more. But it's a pointless debate. It is after all down to the subjective decision of a judge(s). If art is about personal expression and the artist has the right to create art they love, so the viewer has the right to like what they like. Trying to boil a competition down to whose picture is sharpest, etc seems to me a very bland alternative. So no quibbles, and this post isn't about the judge's decision.

Rather I wanted to talk about the effect of competition on me. Perhaps, other people feel the same (selfishly I hope I'm not alone, sorry!). I've long regarded competitions with some scepticism. How can you judge art? How can one photograph be better than another photograph? They can only be different. As I've just said, it is for the most part a subjective judgement by one person or a small panel of people. It doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of your work.

Whilst it is incumbent on a judge to recognise great work outside of their particular tastes, genre and experience, they are ultimately humans viewing a piece of art through their own lens of personal preference and experience. It goes without saying that you're not going to win over every judge.

The goal with our photographs is not to be all things to all people. Indeed, the lust for likes on social media has perhaps reduced a lot of photography to its lowest common denominator, a style of photography which regurgitates iconic places, compositions and processing styles ad nauseam.

Rather I think the goal is to express something of yourself in a photograph. Hopefully make a meaningful impact on one other person. A photograph that makes someone stop, consider, reflect, engage their emotions. Contrast with a photograph that picks up 10,000 likes as people flick through their Facebook feed whilst eating their morning cornflakes? I'll take just that one emotionally engaged person all day long. Ideally it will be more than one, but it's not ever going to be everyone, even if you did play to the audience.

I shouldn't expect a judge to like my work. And knowing that, every competition should probably be approached with a healthy dose of humility. Expect nothing, hope for something. Except it's so easy for that hope to become expectation, or perhaps even entitlement. To assume that our work should be, will be lauded.

Having had a bad run of competition entries - nothing in LPOTY last year, nothing in OPOTY, and now nothing in the LCACA Jubilee Exhibition - I should be getting used to competition failures. But how do you get used to it?

(I should thank SLPOTY/Stuart Low for tweeting to tell me how well received my two commended images have been received in the touring exhibition - a shot in the arm this morning!)

Of course, every judge is different. But each competition failure compounds the previous, forming a consensus in your head about your work. Given that confidence in your work is a perpetual battle of ebb and flow, up and down, of doom and gloom punctuated by seemingly the briefest moments of euphoria, it's easy to get a bit down on yourself. Add the negative judgement of a competition into the mix and you might just throw in the towel!

For a while now I had thought that, so long as you weren't targeting competition success with your photographs then competitions were largely benign. Shoot what you love, how you want to, stick it in a competition on a whim, who cares what happens to it. It seemed healthy enough.

Yet I can't help but feel that the drip-drip-drip of rejection - or perhaps even success - has an impact on even the most thick skinned person. It simply has to get under your skin and have an effect on us at some level. In turn that surely has to pervade our work. Perhaps it's not obvious in an individual photograph, but it may come across in how we feel about our work, how we approach it and how we present it. How can you not feel crap about your work when it is brushed aside? Work that you made with care, love, in hardship and discomfort, that you're emotionally attached to?

I am always so quick to remind others not to take competitions to heart, that it in no way reflects on the quality of their excellent work. Don't change tack. Don't give up. Ignore it. But I find myself unable to take my own advice and wonder what this all means for me and my work. Am I a failure?

And so I think it's time to remind myself that I will be the judge of my own work, not competitions. I'll make photographs that move me first, and maybe even last. I shall reflect of course, and consider where I might be falling short but I can't turn the tanker around. I am me, and I can but make photographs my way. Indeed my reflection so far is that I need to make the them even more my way, not less.

My photographic ambitions are relatively modest. I have no interest in being a rock star photographer, I just need enough to keep doing what I love. I often think photography competitions don't seem to feature on the radar of my photography idols. I'm not sure why I should give them so much of my own attention (which is not much, certainly compared to some).

So at time when International Landscape Photographer of the Year scores have just been announced and LPOTY submissions are due to close, now might be a good time for you too to re-evaluate how healthy your relationship is with competitions.

Sound familiar? Think I have deep seated problems? I'd love to hear your thoughts on competitions and the effect, subtle or otherwise, it has on your photography. Perhaps we can set-up a support network? :D

(I'm aware I've just committed one of those social/artist faux pas. Talking about a competition result. You always sound so bitter when you lose. "Sour grapes", they may cry. My frustrations here are squarely with myself, not the or any competition(s). I see competitions for what they are. Knowing that, I despair - no - I'm pissed off with myself for getting swept up in them and getting ahead of myself.

I may also have just committed professional suicide :). If my photographs don't win competitions, I must suck right? Well, I'm grateful for the support and encouragement of my peers whom I respect. That and the knowledge that those looking for a competition winner probably aren't part of my audience anyway. After all, I can't be all things to all people.)