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Photography Awards: Rip-Off or Legit?

by John Bennet

Once you get a little way into your career as a photographer, you’ll likely consider sending your work off to photography awards in the hope of finding a shortcut to fame and fortune – or at least adding a few important lines to your CV.

But is it really worth participating in photography awards? Aren’t they just a money-spinning rip-off, only to the benefit of the organizers?

In this article we take a look at some of the problems associated with entering photography awards. Please note though, that none of what follows is unfounded speculation: these are not simply scenarios that we can imagine might possibly occur; nor mere scare-stories. Instead every single one of them has either happened to me personally or to close friends within the photography industry.


The Problem With Photography Awards

In actual fact, there isn’t just one single problem with photography awards, but several. Let’s consider some of the most common ones in turn.

  • Entry Fees

Many photography awards require entrants to pay a fee in order to participate. A small fee to cover the costs of running the award seems pretty legit to me. But the fact is that some awards charge very high fees – obviously not considering (or caring) that a photographer may need to enter many different awards each year. Even small fees soon start to add up. This turns being a professional photographer into a rich-man’s game (as if it wasn’t already…).

In my experience, most photography awards that openly state how many entries they’ve received usually give a figure in the region of 800. Obviously, some of the most popular awards will attract way more entries than this. Meanwhile awards that are more obscure, exclusive, or just not well publicized, may receive considerably fewer applications. But 800 seems to be a fairly typical number of entrants overall.

Let’s give a conservative estimate and say that it costs just $20 to enter the average award (some cost less, some are entirely free, but many cost considerably more). $20 x 800 gives the organizers of the award a total income of $16,000. That’s quite a lot of money.

Of course, they will have many expenses to cover: among others things, a website will need to be designed and hosting paid for; plus there’s staff wages and perhaps some prize money to stump up as well. Maybe even an exhibition to organize.

Still, it’s clear that a photography award could quite easily work out to be quite a nice little money making venture for its organizers if that were their goal. Especially if they manage to attract some high profile sponsors to top up the money raised from entrants.

So, are all pay-to-enter awards a rip-off?

No. Some are just trying to cover their expenses and provide us photographers with help in our careers.

Not only that, but by asking entrants to pay a small fee, they discourage the kind of time-waster who doesn’t read the rules and just enters any old junk at random into all the categories in the hope of getting lucky. Editing out these entries takes time, so it’s better to make people think carefully about the work they submit by asking them to pay a small sum for each entry. It also helps to keep the quality of submissions high.

OK, so are only the really expensive awards a money-making scam?

Again, the answer is no. There are one or two very serious and prestigious photography awards that ask extremely high entry fees. Whether these are worth entering is another matter entirely, but with the high caliber of judges and participants these awards attract, it’s clear that they are not just run by scammers on the make.

So how can you tell if a photography award is worth entering or not? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment, but first there other annoyances to deal with.

  • Paperwork

Some awards organizers appear not to be aware of a clever invention that was developed some years back called “the internet.” So instead of getting you to upload a few JPEGs of your work and provide captions or explanatory text in the form of a .doc file, these awards ask for you to send in actual photographic prints and heavy dossiers of textual documentation by the mail. Often in multiple copies.

And as you want your photos to look their best for the jury, obviously you don’t just ship them some cheap-quality prints done on thin copypaper. Instead you’ll probably get some nice looking inkjet proofs done on a lighter grade of Hahnemuhle or similarly costly stock.

What’s more, having spent all that time, energy, and money preparing your weighty application, you’ll almost certainly want to send it by registered courier rather than risk having it go missing in the mail. This adds even further expense. And so a single application can easily wind up costing you well over a hundred dollars to submit.

Oh the irony: you set up a grant or award with the stated goal of helping to support struggling artists, and then ask those same struggling artists to spend their last few bucks on a wasteful application process that benefits absolutely nobody. I’m sorry to point the finger, but undoubtedly the worst perpetrators here are French cultural institutions. Although I’ve come across similarly Luddite entry requirements from elsewhere too.

Sure, after all the effort that’s gone into making my photos, I’d much prefer that my work was viewed by the jury in the form of beautiful prints too – rather than just as tiny little JPEGs on a screen. But if you really must insist on hardcopy applications, why not save the print submissions until round two of the judging process: this way, at least those who send prints already know that they are in with a serious chance of receiving the prize.

  • Image Rights

Particularly sneaky are those awards that effectively get you to sign over rights to your images as part of the entry conditions. By this I don’t mean allowing the organizers to use your images for the promotion of the award: that’s totally fair and legit. No, I’m talking about people who make you sign anyway the right to control how and where your work is to be shown.

I’ve frequently seen people talking about scam awards that make entrants give up the full copyright of their photos when entering: presumably so they can use them to make money through licensing or whatever. Personally I’ve never come across this and can’t confirm that such a thing has ever really happened. It may just be an urban myth. Certainly no respectable award would ever ask you to sign away your rights, but be sure to check the small print of the entry form very carefully all the same, as not all awards are respectable.

What I have encountered, though, is awards where the organizers get to choose how your work is presented to the public after you’ve won: totally ignoring your requests as an artist and walking over any pre-existing and legally-binding agreements you may have with galleries or other interested parties.

To put it more concretely, you may already have a gallery or agent who sells your photos. Or you may sell them directly to collectors yourself. If this is the case, it’s likely that your work will be sold as limited editions, in a specific format, with a certain type of mounting or framing. The market value of your work depends on respecting these conditions of sale: you can’t just go and produce other copies of the work in any old format you like.

Some awards organize an exhibition of prize-winners’ work (for example, as part of a photography festival). In a few cases the organizers will have the budget to ship your work over, exactly as you wish for it to be exhibited. But often an award will have sponsors for printing and therefore won’t be willing to pay the shipping fees, instead insisting that their partners take care of the printing – without you being able to oversee the results. This can lead to a serious conflict of interests.

For example, imagine a collector has purchased a print from you – say print #3 from a limited edition of five, produced only as 12 x 16” prints. What happens if they then walk into the exhibition of a photography award and find that it is showing the same work in totally different dimensions? I think we can assume that they would not be happy at all. The value of their investment depends on the exclusivity of that work being maintained by the artist and gallery. A photography award has no right to undermine this.

Worse still are those awards who take it upon themselves to decide which of your works will be exhibited, and in what order. If a photographer shoots their work as a narrative series, any change in the order or edit of the series alters the narrative. This effectively changes the work of art.

I’m sorry, who’s the artist here? The photographer or the award organizer?

Once I was asked to send over a selection of images to be used for press and promotion of an award exhibition, which I duly did: only to discover that the organizers later decided to select a totally different set of images (from the files I’d provided for printing), and then send these out to the press instead. So my exhibition was publicized with images that were totally unrepresentative of either my work as a photographer or the project itself – and in any case not the ones I’d provided when asked to do so.

Sure, this isn’t the worst thing that could possibly happen to a photographer, but it certainly demonstrates that the organizers of this award lacked all respect for photographers as artists.

  • Poor Communication

“Congratulations!” say your friends, as you stare at them blankly. “Well done!” they exclaim while you shake your head in confusion – unaware that you’re currently in the running for a potentially life-changing photography prize.

Yes, there are those awards that just don’t bother to tell you you’ve been nominated at all.

Somehow though, they invariably find the time to promote the shortlist – which includes your name – on social media. Leaving it to your better-connected friends to congratulate you on your success after seeing the list of nominated photographers on Facebook or in a newsletter mail-out.

Here you get a clear idea of just where you stand in the order of things: it’s a potentially career-establishing event for you, and yet somehow it doesn’t occur to the organizers that perhaps you might be interested to know about it. In cases like this, it’s evident that you’re nothing but a commodity in the eyes of the organizers.

Any award that gives so little consideration to the very people it depends upon for its existence – the participants – is one that exists more for the benefit of the organizers themselves than in order to assist you in your career.

Unfortunately this is a much more common occurrence than you might think. Worse still, it’s a problem you will only find out about once it’s too late. Of course, if you’ve won, you’ll likely be notified by somebody in the end. But perhaps you might have liked to make use of this great opportunity for promotion to tell other people that you’re among the finalists – ideally before the overall winner is announced.

  • Nepotism

Occasionally there are awards where an international call for entries is made; hundreds, if not thousands, of emerging photographers from all over the globe pay their fees and nervously send in their work hoping to be selected; but in actual fact the winner had already been decided by the jury long before applications even opened to the public.

Clearly this is extremely unfair to those who’ve gone to the effort to enter a photography competition they can never actually win. And if the applicants have also had to pay money in order to enter, then it really is one of the more disgusting tricks you could ever pull on emerging photographers.

I’m guessing this scenario occurs fairly often. However, the only time I know of it happening for sure, it was actually a little more complex than merely corruption and nepotism on the part of the competition organizers. Indeed, in this case – a photography award connected to an international festival –  it was done because a photographer had earlier been invited to exhibit during the festival, but all the exhibition spaces and funding had already been allocated. Fixing the award was the only way that the curators could find to include the photographer in the festival line-up.

Not that this in any way excuses what is clearly a totally unethical practice, but I mention it more in case some of you reading this are going “no way would that ever happen.” It can, and it does. Very depressing.

  • Bureaucracy

It’s important to bear in mind that not all photography awards work in the same way.

Those that are more specifically geared towards photojournalists – for example the World Press Photo Awards, or Getty’s grants – will tend to be judged by a group of well-known and respected photographers and editors at the top of the industry.

While there’s always the risk of nepotism here (for example, the award that goes to a photographer who just so happens to be a prominent jury member’s lover), at least you can be fairly certain that those making the important decisions actually know a thing or two about photography. You may not share the same tastes as all those on the jury, but as they are highly regarded photography industry professionals, at least you can’t accuse them of not knowing their Abbas from their Erwit.

There are other types of award though that tend to be more institutional: run by obscure foundations or government-funded cultural bodies. Some of these may be specifically pitched towards photographers, but many are non-media-specific awards for the arts in general that are nonetheless also open to those working in photography.

These can actually be a great source of funding, exposure, and opportunity. What’s more, as they are often less well-known, and invariably open to a much smaller pool of potential applicants (for example, because you have to be a citizen or resident of a certain country, or because there’s an age limit), you might also stand a greater chance of winning.

However, as a photographer you may encounter a different obstacle here: institutional awards tend to be judged by a panel of people from quite diverse professional backgrounds. Backgrounds that may have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with photography.

This will be especially true of those awards that are open to a broad range of artistic disciplines. So for example you may find that the jury includes an arts curator with a specialization in sculpture; a well-respected choreographer; a literary critic; the minister for culture from the local government; and perhaps a couple of members of the foundation’s board of directors. In short, people with precisely zero photographic knowledge.

Well, let’s say zero real knowledge. Unfortunately though, as pretty much everyone now considers themselves to be an aficionado of photography, the jury members might have a strong opinion about what “good” photography is all the same.

If somebody were to ask you to judge a dance award, you’ll likely have an opinion about which of the dancers you like best. However, if you know nothing about choreography, you’ll hopefully have the sense to turn down an offer of serving on the jury: for the simple reason that you realize that you are unqualified to judge a discipline that you have no more than a superficial degree of knowledge about. We all have our tastes, likes, and opinions, but most of us know when we are out of our professional depth.

Unfortunately, in an age where photography has become just part of everyday communication, few people have the self-awareness to admit to themselves that they don’t really know about photography.

Of course, everyone likes Steve McCurry and Annie Leibovitz. So if your photos look like these two, you might be in with a chance of winning. But if you’re actually trying to do something new and push the boundaries of photojournalism or documentary photography, only somebody who is equally clued up about contemporary photography will appreciate the value of what you’re doing. If the jury is made up of people from totally unrelated areas of the arts, they likely just won’t get it.

Worse still, I’ve actually come across photography-specific grants where the finalists are selected on the strength of a written proposal only. I.e. the jury at the first stage of the award doesn’t see any of the contestants’ photography at all, but just reads their project proposals and looks at their resumés – without knowing if the shortlisted applicants can even get a shot in focus! Only in the second round are finalists asked to provide examples of their photography.

The outcome here is invariably that the winner is some dreary “art” photographer producing work that looks like it was made in the 1980s, but with an impressive CV filled with grants, residencies, and awards from other respectable cultural institutions.

Here at least the organizers admit that they know nothing about photography. But instead of employing somebody actually capable of making a critical judgment about the discipline, they leave the decision of who gets through to the final round to a bunch of administrative pen-pushers who know even less about photography than they do.

In turn, these people just check applicants’ CVs, looking for those “safe” photographers who already have official validation from other similarly lazy and bureaucratic cultural foundations. Creating a self-perpetuating whirlpool of institutional photographic mediocrity.


Should You Enter Photography Awards?

So, after all this criticism, surely it’s not worth bothering with photography awards at all?

Photography awards are invariably pitched as being fantastic opportunities for photographers; set up by altruistic organizations whose only reason for existing is to help the careers of struggling artists and journalists. Yet in reality a lot of these awards primarily exist in order to promote whatever business or organization is behind it.

This means that, for a great many award organizers, we photographers are of secondary importance: merely raw material to be consumed. “Oh, what, you won the award? Sorry we forgot to tell you, we were so busy satisfying our sponsors and blowing our own trumpet on social media.”

And yet, despite all this, yes, you absolutely should participate in awards.

Look on it as a necessary inconvenience. Indeed, it’s an important part of your job. And if you are any good, and are lucky (particularly if you are lucky), then sooner or later you’ll likely be selected as a winner.

Who knows, the organizers might even remember to tell you about it too.


Will Winning a Photography Award Change Your Life?

Well, clearly this will depend on precisely which award we’re talking about. If it’s one that comes with a sizable cash prize or funding towards a project, then obviously the answer is yes.

With potentially tens of thousands of dollars up for grabs from some of the most important awards, being the recipient of a photography grant or bursary of this kind can make a massive difference to your life: just imagine being able to spend several months totally concentrated on producing new work without having to worry about where the rent will come from.

Obviously though, photography awards of this kind are both rare and highly competitive. In entering your work you’ll be up against some of the greatest photographers in the world. Realistically then, you will likely not get to the point where you can walk away with an $8K production grant until you’ve already got a few smaller and medium sized awards under your belt.

But this is precisely why smaller awards are also worth entering, even when there’s not a great deal on the table in the way of financial rewards for the winner: they are all part of the process of getting you nearer to the big league awards.

Other than that though, what do these smaller awards have to offer photographers?

The honest answer is that it’s really hard to gauge just how much direct difference these smaller awards will make to your career. For some photography award winners, the phone might not stop ringing after netting a well-publicized award. For others, an award may not bring any obvious changes, and they’ll just have to keep working away at things like they did before.

Nonetheless, the knock-on effects of winning a photography award can be more subtle and indirect. Indeed, photography awards are all part of the slow process of raising your profile as a photographer. Just having a few good ones on your CV will help to open doors (note that we say “good” ones: winning lots of low quality awards will likely do more harm than good).

Not only that, but winning a photography award – even just getting into the list of finalists – gives you an excuse to promote your work on social media. Hell, it can simply just a great boost to self confidence, which in itself is not to be underestimated.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that, even if there isn’t anything to be gained financially from winning a photography award, the public exposure that winning may bring can be a fantastic prize in itself. And by this we mean exposure not only for you as a photographer, but also for the story and issues your photographic work seeks to draw attention to. Sure, it may not be the same as getting on the cover of Time magazine, but if by winning an award a few hundred more people become aware of an unknown, overlooked, or largely forgotten social or political issue, that’s already a big step forward.


How Can You Tell if a Particular Photography Award is Worth Entering or Not?

With so many photography awards out there, of varying degrees of respectability, how do you work out which awards are worth entering and which are just money-spinning rip-offs?

Well, unfortunately there’s no sure-fire way of distinguishing the worthwhile photography awards from the chancers. Indeed, even some awards run by well-intentioned people can turn out to be a waste of your time and money if those people aren’t very experienced or organized, or their good intentions end up getting sidetracked by the mundane time-consuming realities of running an award. The result being, your win is poorly promoted and publicized, and the promised prizes never materialize.

However, there are plenty of clues you can look out for as an indication of the prestigiousness (or otherwise) of a particular award:

  • If it’s an award that has already existed for a year or two, then the first thing you should check out are the previous winners: if past award recipients are photographers you admire, or at least ones that you consider to be serious professionals, then this is already a very good sign.
  • Now take a closer look at the organization running the award itself. Who are they? What do they do the rest of the year when not running the award? Ask yourself what’s in it for them? Why are they doing this?
  • Some awards don’t announce the jury ahead of time – so as to avoid any risk of jury members being contacted and influenced in some way by applicants before the judging begins. However, other awards will clearly state who the jurors are. If this is the case, check them out. Are they people whose opinion you respect?

Important editors, curators, critics and photographers? Go for it.

A couple of unknown wedding and commercial photographers? Better to save your time, money, and reputation for something more suitable.

You should always look at jurors closely anyway, even when you know it’s a top quality award: knowing who the jurors are and what kind of photography they are interested in will help you to better tweak your application to fit the their photographic tastes (whether this means changing your story edit, or writing a different project statement).

And if it’s obvious that all the jurors are into a totally different style of photography to the one that you’re working in, and therefore will likely not be interested in your work, save yourself the bother and don’t enter in the first place.

  • Many awards have external sponsors. Check to see who these are. Big sponsors don’t necessarily guarantee a high-quality award, but they probably do at least indicate that the organizers will be professional enough to come through with the prizes if you do win (having said that, it’s no guarantee: I once won an award sponsored by a major camera manufacturer whose organizers took over a year to come through with the prize money, and even then they only paid up because one of the jurors intervened on my behalf).
  • Some awards only accept one single type of photography, others have several categories. Finally there are those that have so many categories and sub categories that it’s hard to know in which one you should enter your work. Often this type of award makes entrants pay per image entered, rather than asking a single fixed fee to enter an entire photographic series. This looks to me like a money-making scheme more than an award intended to further the careers of those who enter.
  • Also, be sure to take a good look at precisely which categories are on offer. If you are a gritty, hardcore documentary photographer, it should be obvious that entering an award that only offers categories such as “photo manipulation” or “nudes” is probably a waste of your time – whether it’s a legitimate award or otherwise.


Final thoughts

You’ll likely agree that this has, overall, been a pretty cynical look at photography awards. In reality though, there are many good awards out there, run by people who genuinely care about photography, and who really want to help promote the work of emerging photographers. The good awards may not be in the majority, but it’s well worth tracking them down. Even just participating in one (never mind winning) can be a great experience, helping you to develop as a photographer.

Nonetheless, every year I see a lot of calls for some very sketchy looking photography awards. Hopefully this article has helped to better prepare you to differentiate between those that are genuinely worth entering, and those that are solely interested in parting you from your money.

How have your own experiences of photography awards been? Positive? Negative? Let us know in the comments.

Photo D.G.