Photo Contests – to enter or not to enter

milwaukee art museum
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 ;)



0 Responses

  1. AMEN!!! Well said, well put and something that resonates with so many of us! The relationships on Social Media are amazing and I can't imagine being in this field in a different time (I can because I've been shooting for ## years enough to know). So many friendships, so much encouragement and support just through those 'not in real life' connections which are indeed real life! Thank you for posting this. Do what you love and what makes you happy. it will show in your art!

  2. Angie...This post resonates with me so much! Thank you for putting into words something that has been on my mind so much this year. Yes, I totally agree with you! It's the getting out there, the interacting, the networking, the meeting people and connecting with them that makes all the difference. It's why I made the decision a year ago to pursue teaching in my photography. It absolutely electrifies me. You have to be true to yourself and, as you say, "shut out the noise" because there is a lot of it out there. Follow your heart and your passion and it comes back in spades. I've had so, so many people tell me that they love my classes because of the passion I have for my craft. People adore you, your classes always get stellar reviews at OOC. You are totally moving in the right direction and you have always been a huge inspiration for me! I would love to talk to you more about all this!

    1. Oh, thank you so much, Anne! I love you! This is all so true. I'm such a shy person and writing like this makes me so nervous and the decision to teach was so difficult because I am shy but it's one of the best decisions I've made. The people I've met the connections I've made are priceless and none of it would have happened had I not taken a chance or had Chris pushing me. I owe him so much! It's being excited and passionate that matters and what people connect with whether through how you teach or the images you create. I would love to talk to you about this anytime. I hope to see you soon!

  3. Photography and design is subjective, there's no getting around it and you cant take it personally. Just look at your instagram photos below - they rock!

    1. Very true, David! And, thank you :) I'm well beyond taking it personally anymore, though in the beginning I think it's very common.

  4. In my opinion, your assessment is positively "spot-on". In my opinion, one should take photographs for the JOY of taking photographs and as a means of self-expression. If you're doing it for the money or recognition, find something else to do. Besides... I'm my own worst critic. As always YMMV ;)

    1. Thank you, Rich! Completely agree, no one HAS to take photos so why add the pressure of pleasing others. I think we're all our own worst critics.

  5. I love you, too, Angie! :) I feel the same way and we've talked about it. I was very nervous about making that jump into teaching but Chris was so encouraging and I owe him so much. Once I did it a few times, I realized how much I loved it and loved the sharing and connecting with people. It just gets better and better. Aside from the craft itself and always carving out enough time to shoot (so important to me), it's the relationships that are the most important. One of the reasons I feel so blessed to be with OOC - it has expanded my world incredibly, and I think that's true not only for the staff and the instructors but the attendees, as well. We'll talk soon!

  6. Thanks Lauri for sharing this article! For someone who is still figuring out what I like to shoot and why, it is encouraging to read "trust your guts and time out the noise" :-)

  7. This blog is simply.... BAD ASS!!! Thank you for writing it up. I've gotten to the point where I will not fall prey to these money-suck of contests anymore. They are terrible, for the most part, all of them. I suppose there are 1 or 2 that may still be worthy, but I think I will forego ALL of them in 2017!!! Cheers, my friend. :)

    1. Thanks, Kevin! I hear ya! I entered 1 last year and actually regretted it...pointless and took so much time and money. Might enter one this year, it's free but that's it. I'm just over it.

  8. YES! YES!! YES!!!!! :)
    So many contests, especially local ones, are nothing but an affirmation process for the clique of people running the dad gum thing!
    Great Post from an amazing photographer!

    1. Exactly, I have a hard time giving critique as it's simply my opinion and I don't want to put my vision on someone else. If it's a technical question that's one thing or if they ask something specific about the image, wanting specific feedback that's one thing.

  9. Great rant! You touch so many aspects of the idea of photography and what it means to the creative soul. And the true wisdom is in the idea that networking and meeting people (on and off line) is the real reason to pursue this passion of ours. It always resonates with me when people are putting up work that is truly personal and they are passionate about it. Copying something is great way to learn, but at some point you just have to believe in your own vision and go with it. And when you do that, people notice it. Whether it is the most brilliant work doesn't matter, but because it is unique, it is worth something and it has a universal appeal.

    1. Thank you! Yes, all so very true. Early on emulating someone helps you learn but at a certain point you need to go your own way and find your own voice. Only then, do I feel, the work begins to resonate with others because it's something your passionate about.

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