It all started out so well. You received an email invitation to enter what sounded like a very exclusive photo contest. The invitation was personalized and there were compliments on your published work. Or you were flipping through a magazine and saw that they were having a photo contest with great prizes for the winners. Or you got a post on your Facebook wall, or a comment on your Instagram feed saying that you should enter the contest.
Maybe your town is having a special event and is having a photo contest. Maybe your camera club is really into competitions and you are being encouraged to enter. Perhaps a public group on social media has a regular challenge that only "members" can enter. This all sounds just awesome and wonderful.
It's all bull. All of it. Photo contests are the poster child for the definition of subjective. They are not objective. They are not going to make you a better photographer, but they may put you off photography for years. You will not get rich or famous by winning a photo contest but someone will get to use your images without your input forever.
In any photo contest, YOU are the product, and the rewards for being the product are negligible.
Do You Know What You Give Up?
Lots of people enter contests, most of them never read the rules. Some do and think that they do not matter, because "they" aren't "good enough" to worry. All contests will have some line in their rules, typically in micro type that says that be entering you grant the contest operator, their partners, assorted parasites and all manner of other leeches, permanent use of your images without notification or compensation. You cede any rights to retract your authorization. That's what irrevocable means. Submit a photo of a good looking teen and discover it adorning a condom box? Too bad, you agreed to it. It's not their fault, it's yours, you agreed to the conditions. You may even give up your right to use your photo for any other purpose, forever, no matter what. If you do, the contest organizer may have rights to sue you for damages, and all or some of any proceeds that you get from your work.
Who Is The Judge?
There are courses and certifications for photo contest judges. I've been through the program. When push comes to shove, the courses are more about interpreting the submission guidelines than providing anything in the way of constructive developments. I have seen on far too many occasions, the same judge give vastly different grades in the same contest to two images that are more identical than different. When challenged the responses are uniformly full of sh*t. "Image one has more "feeling" than image two. How is that objective? How does an entrant know that if the judge looked at the image on a different day and time and in a different mood that the results would not be completely different? Who is an "accreditted" judge and what entitles that person to tell you whether your work is good or not? Are you that insecure that you think some other person's valuation of your art is more accurate than your own? What a load of bull that is.
More often than not, the judges have NO training, have gone through no accreditation process, however meaningless that might be, and your hard work is being judged by someone with no art background, no photographic skills, no talent and last week was sealing boxes with packing tape. Who the hell are these people to judge your work and how lame are you for letting them?
Social Media Postings
Have you read the terms and conditions that apply when you post to a public group on social media? If you think that contest rules take advantage of you, social media is 100 times worse. Yet people post pictures every day. Most of them are disposable to be certain, and the submitters know this to be true, all they want are likes and thumbs up from people that they do not know, and would not lend a buck to, if they met them live. When you post to social media, your work may as well be public domain, because effectually it is.
Oh, you put a watermark on it? Ever hear of Photoshop? So much for your fancy and probably paid for watermark. Unless your watermark is digitally embedded, removing it is easier than applying it.
What's that? You only submit online to public community challenges? Do you think that makes any kind of difference to the suborning of your rights by your own choice? Who benefits from your entry? It's the organizer, who by sharing your work under their banner may generate more business, more revenue, or authority built solely on the spine of your efforts.
But I'm A Photographer, This Is How I Get Business!
This is a lie. A lie told by Instagram and Facebook and the rest of the identity and content thieves that you sanction. Photographers do not get hired because of content in contests, or social media. They get hired because they get out and sell their talent, their skill, their ability to deliver on time and to specification. Facebook users upload over 350 million pictures a day according to data from 2013. As of 2016, Instagram was getting over 80 million pictures a day. Your uploads are standing out in this sea of dreck precisely how? You aren't getting any business through uploading or entering contests, it's a lie used to get more content for nothing.
Change The Rules
Don't like this? Think that I'm an ass for writing it? Fair enough. That doesn't change reality, so lie to yourself if it makes you happy, but know the truth. Stop working for free. If you truly love your art, that should be enough. If it isn't, it means that you accept someone else's valuation over your own, even though they have no ability to know your thinking, your emotion and what you are getting out of your work. It's a sign of weakness and that you are ok being taken advantage of. Want to be a better artist? Spend less time on contests and social media and more time on your work. Shoot for yourself, share with friends and people that you trust if you wish, but only for their pleasure, not for your lack of confidence.
If you like your work, make big prints and hang them in your own home. Create memories that last. Build your own portfolio where you control the content and how it gets used. That's what a real artist does.
During his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh couldn't give away his work. The judges of the day determined it was worthless and of poor quality. This did not stop Mr. Van Gogh from painting. The really sad thing is that his work was not appreciated until long after his death. I see Starry Night, and can look at it for hours. It appeals to me. I do not judge it. I simply like it. I have never read a review of it, never attended a lecture on it, never heard anything from an art critic. I choose to think for myself and draw my own conclusions. If you are an artist, there is no other option.
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