It seems to be that time of year…my inbox is beginning to be flooded with calls for entry to this contest and that contest. Promising exposure to “industry leaders”, glory, fame and all the recognition you SO deserve. And every year I get lured into thinking this is gonna allow me to break out and be seen and if I just win one of these all important contests the commissions and dream jobs will be rolling in.
Well, let me tell you something, and fair warning I’m in the crabbiest of moods today so perhaps this is a bit misdirected…though I’ve been contemplating a post like this for quite some time. Anyway, I’ve been entering contests pretty much yearly for about the last 7ish years (I’ve been photographing for about 15 years) and I’ve received lots of honorable mentions and a handful of first and second places and juror awards and you know what, never, not even once has a client ever said they commissioned me or hired me for a photo job because of one of these awards. And I’ve asked friends who have won similar awards and the same holds true for them – nope, not once.
So why the hell do I keep torturing myself with these entries which take an eternity to prepare and can cost a fortune. Because, of course, every single one has different requirements for file sizes and how the images are to be submitted. And then the dreadful task of determining which images from the year might be contest-worthy. God help me and my problem with indecision! Why oh why do I continue to do this?
Early on it was because I wanted validation. Was my work good, am I worthy? I mean, we all want to be appreciated and told so. Then you win one and holy hell is that exciting! You think this is it, my work will be seen, I’ll get a dream photo job and make real money doing this. Sorry to disappoint, but that sure as hell hasn’t happened, not because of a contest, at least.
You know what has resulted in commissions? Networking – getting my work out there consistently on social media, my blog posts, guest blog posts. Networking in real life through workshops, whether attending or teaching at them, meeting people for real, connecting with them. Being a decent human being – respectful, grateful, appreciative, responsive, trustworthy, professional, organized.
And you know what else has worked, shooting what and how I like. Editing how I like. Ignoring the noise of everyone else’s opinion of how I should compose a shot or edit a shot. You see that image at the top of this post? About 4 years ago I attended a workshop and there was a critique session and they critiqued this image. About the only positive thing they could say about it was that is was symmetrical….um, okay, I suck. And that’s exactly how I felt leaving that workshop. But you know what happened about 2 weeks later? Another well-known and respected photographer came across my site and sent me a message telling me how much he liked this very image. WTF, seriously?! Who the hell do I trust, whose opinion matters most?
You know what I determined, neither of them. In that moment I decided to say fuck it, I’m done giving a shit what anyone else thinks of my images. Okay, that’s kinda true, I still care and did then but it was also a turning point. I tuned out most of the feedback I was getting and started shooting only for me. I shot what I really loved, composed in a way that spoke to me and made me happy and and excited to be out there with my camera. And I edited how I liked. I wasn’t in this to make a living, I was in this for the fun of it and why let anyone take that away from me?
You see, everyone brings their vision and their life experiences to their own work and in their interpretation of your work. Think about it, why can a number of people go into a gallery, look at the very same painting and come away with entirely different interpretations or feelings. It’s not exactly the painting or photo, it’s their life experiences that dictate how they interpret what’s in front of them. Yes, some people do have a better understanding of what makes an image work or not work and it doesn’t hurt to have people in your life who you trust to offer their opinion of your work but the large majority just needs to be tuned out.
Looking at this image now, years later, is it my best work? Not even close, but there’s still something about it that speaks to me and that I like. It was also made during a time that I was shooting mostly portrait work, which I pretty much hate, and needed to get away from that. I remember that day very well. My daughter was very young, I was having a bad day, my husband was working late and when he got home I just left. I needed to be alone, I needed to do something for myself and this was the result of that night. It started me down a path of actually figuring out what the hell I really wanted to be doing outside of family obligations and related to photography, because I so knew portrait photography was not it. So, yes, only I know the story and the feeling and the importance of what this one image did for me and that’s so not coming through in the image as a stand-alone but the point is, you know which of your images matter to you and moved you in whatever direction you needed to be moving in. Don’t let the opinion of someone else take that away from you or deter you.
It’s also the continuous practice of this craft that develops results, that allows you to grow, to notice a style emerge. It takes time, for some longer than others. I had been shooting about 10 years before I began to put the pieces together of what I really like to shoot and why and it’s always evolving, just as we do in all aspects of our lives. Try to be cognizant of this.
I guess my point is, because I’m feeling this ridiculous pressure to enter these calls for entry, that this year I’m not. I might enter a couple, and likely only if they’re free, because my money and time are far better spent getting out there in the real world. Attending workshops, teaching at workshops, meeting people in person, interacting with them on social media – as strange as that may sound I can’t tell you how many relationships I’ve built or maintained because of this. As an example, a couple years ago I was in Los Angeles, completely forgot to bring my tripod, yep that’s how much of an afterthought that thing is, but wanted to shoot from the Griffith Observatory that night. I had posted a photo from downtown LA that morning and jokingly said something about leaving my tripod in Chicago and a local photographer there said I could borrow his…how nice, right? We met up and we’ve remained friends through social media for the last 2 years. I could give so many more examples similar to this. As unreal as these social media friendships may seem they can and do connect people. So many great photographers I never would have known about had it not been for this. Spend your time building these connections and then find a way to meet up in person, you have no idea where it may lead…collaborations, connections to people that might actually hire you, who knows?! And spend your time shooting, be consistent, be intentional, make the time. These are the things that truly matter.
End of rant 😉