BY PETER DENCH

With the competition season in full-swing and competitions to suit every genre, skill-level and budget, Olympus Visionary Peter Dench explores the ups and downs of entering a photography contest.

I’ve only spontaneously shrieked with joy three times in my adult life. The second time was in 2003. I was standing in the bus queue for the W7 on Crouch End Broadway. After hearing the news from John Easterby, director of the Independent Photographers Group (IPG), the agency that represented me, that I had placed third in the People in the News Stories category at the World Press Photo awards (WPP), I had to sit down. The WPP awards, in my mind, are the Oscars of photojournalism. Winning mattered and IPG photographers, then part of Katz Pictures, were actively encouraged to enter competitions. They were habitual winners, the Katz cream. It was the first time I’d entered the WPP awards and the last time I’d won. 

My entry was 12 photographs from the series, Drinking of England (a nod to Martin Parr’s, Thinking of England), which then developed to become the book: A&E: Alcohol and England. It was the pre-digital era, all submissions had to be on slide film. If you hadn’t, you made prints then copied them onto slide film, a costly process which excluded many across the globe from entering. IPG photographer and mentor, Tom Stoddart, advised me to embrace the opportunities at the WPP awards weekend which included giving a 15-minute presentation. I was after Magnum Photo Agency legend Bruce Davidson who I had written an essay about at University, I’d got a C+. When I’d finished and walked off stage past Davidson, he mouthed A+. The weekend was a triumph, my photo-essay published worldwide, the trophy still shines proudly in my living room. 

In 2007, a challenger to WPP was launched. The World Photography Organisation (WPO), a global platform for photography established by CEO, Scott Gray and sponsored by Sony. Photographer Harry Borden once modestly suggested his wide ranging competition successes were because he just ‘got in early.’ On that advice that I got to work entering. My first few entries amounted to nothing until, in 2010, I was one of 10 shortlisted in the Advertising category. My image for Weetabix pictured a young girl who’d caught a shark next to her brother holding a tiddler (the shark was a £6K fiberglass model, despite this, residents in Birmingham complained it promoted shark fishing and the advertisement was pulled). I was then advised (under embargo) that I’d placed in the top three and should get myself to Cannes in the south of France for the awards ceremony – up the red carpet and into the Grand Auditorium Louis Lumière. I placed second, wasn’t invited on stage, didn’t receive a trophy, certificate or rosette. The weekend felt a little devalued and I was £500 out of pocket but I did get to meet hero Eve Arnold.

In 2009 I was informed by a friend in Denmark that I’d won first prize in the sports category at the International Colour Awards along with a cheque for $500 and inclusion in a book. The deadline for receiving the $500 passed, the book was downgraded to a magazine, a magazine you had to subscribe to. 600 ‘winners’ were featured in the issue, winners that had paid to enter the competition. In 2017 I received Bronze at the One Eyeland Photography Awards for my photo essay, The English Summer Season. I also received an email: Congratulations! Your image(s) have been pre-selected for the BEST OF THE BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS. You’d be even more delighted to know that your work is among the Top 2% that made the cut! I was asked to pay a publishing fee of US$ 375 – 500. The emails asking to submit images for the book became so unpleasant I eventually had to block them.

There are photography competitions for everyone: photojournalism and documentary photographers, portrait photographers, awards for students, emerging photographers and female photographers. There are competitions for every category: wildlife, street, fashion, travel, architecture, mobile phone, night time, landscape, pinhole, black and white, colour, abstract, astronomy, science and technology. There are cash prizes, camera prizes and meet the expert prizes. Were there always this many? My enthusiasm for competitions has waned, competition fatigue has set in. What is the role of competitions, are they value for money, does winning still matter?

I asked VII Agency photographer, Jocelyn Bain Hogg, who has judged both the WPP and WPO. “I’m working with VII mentees, all these young photographers across the planet and all they seem to want to do is win prizes. Their idea is if they win something like WPP, it gives them a launch pad – this is tragic, they’re only looking for work that might win them awards. However, the WPO and WPP are the ones that I think have any sway at all but even the WPP is kind of dangerous with the rules and attitudes being enforced, every year they make colossal mistakes from Paolo Pellegrin when I was judging it to Giovanni Troilo.” 

The WPP contest verification process requires raw files to be submitted in the later rounds of judging but there can be other disputes. In 2013, WPP released a statement regarding the ethics of Paolo Pellegrin’s award-winning story, The Crescent, awarded second prize in the General News Category: the jury is of the opinion that although a more complete and accurate introduction and captions should have been made available by the photographer, the jury was not fundamentally misled by the picture in the story or the caption that was included with it. In 2015, Troilo, an Italian professional photographer was stripped of his WPP First Prize in Contemporary Issues award for his story, The Dark Heart of Europe, after an investigation found that he had misrepresented the location where one of the pictures was taken. This year, WPP released a statement concerning allegations that Maximilian Mann had plagiarised the work of Solmaz Daryani, in his reportage, Fading Flamingos, awarded second prize in the Environment Stories category. The Post-Award Review Panel found no copyright infringement and no breach of the contest code of ethics or entry rules. About 20% of the contest’s photos are disqualified for staging, according to The New York Times.

The digitisation of photography has made entering competitions more affordable and democratic. It has also made the competition more ferocious and the attempts to manipulate success extreme. In 2010, The Natural History Museum, Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner, José Luis Rodriguez, was stripped of his £10,000 prize after judges found he was likely to have hired a tame Iberian wolf to stage the image (‘entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to misrepresent the reality of nature’). In 2017, a winning entry by Marcio Cabral was disqualified for featuring an anteater after it was decided it was ‘highly likely’ a taxidermy specimen. In 2012, photographer David Byrne had his £10,000 prize revoked as overall winner of the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition after judges ruled he had excessively employed Photoshop before submitting his image, Lindisfarne Boats.

“The interesting thing is the money, all these different competitions have sprung up and you pay for them. The rule of thumb is you tell young photographers, never apply if you have to pay,” advises Bain Hogg. WPP and the WPO competitions are free to enter. There majority aren’t. Life Framer charge $20 for single image entry, $30 for three, $40 for six. For the LensCulture Exposure Awards, you can enter a single image into the competition free of charge. Subsequent images cost $10 to upload. To receive a written critique of your submission, you must enter more than five images ($50) or a series of images ($60). 

In 2017, street photographer Craig Reilly, along with two colleagues, launched the Street Photography International awards (SPi) in response to the popularity of the Instagram account which has over 1.6million followers. “Competitions are so exclusive and expensive. Photographers in certain parts of the world just can’t enter them. We’ve made a real point of creating a competition that was inclusive of everyone,” explains Reilly. Around 20 thousand entries are expected this year, the cost to enter is £2 per photo. The winner and the 15 selected finalists have their work exhibited for three weeks at The Printspace gallery in London and all receive a Ricoh GR III and Tenba DNA camera bag. “ We didn’t want to out-price anyone from entering. There were so many good photographers we were witnessing on the Instagram account that had no following, no name, that were able to take some amazing photos that won’t get a look in in some of the big competitions. Our main ethos is creating a competition that is inclusive of everyone and being fair to the photography community.” Wouldn’t it be fairer to waive the entry fee, particularly in these economically challenging times? “If you have a free competition they can enter anything, there’s no invested interest. We have submissions from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Brazil – £2 is a lot of money but they’ve got an invested interest when they actually pay, that’s why we keep it to a minimum but have to charge something.”

Winning allows your work to be seen by industry experts and boost confidence. The prizes are undoubtedly helpful. With traditional outlets for images (particularly stories) diminishing, the role of the photography competition has increased in importance as a way of reaching an audience. The competition process can be daunting. It feels good to win and good to try. Having won competitions, interviewed competition winners and talked to many involved in the industry, here’s some advice. The application process can help refine a project and give a better understanding of what it’s about. Enter work that has something to say and that you’re proud of. Read the rules thoroughly. Be disciplined editing your work and your harshest critic, if you feel too close to it, source a second and third opinion. Check who has won the competition in the past to see how your work compares. Don’t presuppose what the judges will like or enter work you feel will fit into their aesthetic. Don’t enter the obvious. If you feel the cost and entry fees are prohibitive, don’t enter – it’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience not a regrettable one. If you don’t win, don’t worry and good luck!

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