Make no mistake about it: most photographic competitions and exhibitions exist to grow the business and bank account of the host/sponsor(s). With few exceptions, they rarely exist as an altruistic enterprise for the advancement of photographer's careers. You shouldn’t let this stop you from entering them but you should carefully select only the competitions and exhibitions which might advance your career or current project. Small cash and gear prizes are nice, but competitions and exhibitions that increase your brand exposure and put your work in front of important individuals (museum curators; book publishers; gallery owners, etc.) and potential buyers should receive most of your attention.
Given the slowing of wall art sales in recent years, I have seen an unusual explosion of new photo competitions and exhibitions; some worth entering, most only worth it to those collecting the fees. With so many artists clamoring and competing for exposure, résumé growth, and sales, it’s a great time to be on the receiving end of those entry fees. Most of the exhibitions and competitions I formerly entered have seen an explosion in the number of entries and countries represented.
Let’s do some basic math: assuming an entry fee of $35 for two images (which is somewhat average although on the low end of the fee scale) with 500 entrants (also on the low end of the scale for a prestigious competition; ILPOTY claims nearly 4000 entrants in their most recent competition), this equals a $17,500 take for the host, minus the small amount they’ll spend on administering the competition, advertising, and hosting an opening night reception (if they even host a reception). It’s a no-brainer: if you’re a gallery that is not selling enough art, selling exhibition space to eager entrants makes sense in difficult times.
As there are few to no fee-less competitions (and those generally come with glaring caveats; see Rights Grabbing below), I encourage photographers to carefully investigate juried exhibitions and competitions before submitting fees and shipping work. What should be your criteria for entry?
- Prestige: how well known is the competition? Is the work of consistently high caliber? Is it a respected competition?
- Longevity: has the competition been in existence for a while or is brand new? Brand new competitions are less likely to be helpful to your resume and career;
- Jurors: a well respected juror likely indicates a higher caliber competition, and being successfully juried by a well-respected juror could do wonders for your career and ego (not to mention a nice addition to your résumé);
- Exposure: is the exhibition held in a respected space? Will your work be seen by many or few? Will the work be seen by buyers or only by lookie-loo’s who come for the wine and cheese? Is the exhibition held in Los Angeles or New York, or is it being held in Bismarck or Topeka? (no offense to the latter cities, but exhibition location matters);
- Fees: are the entry fees reasonable? Are the entry fees consistent with the caliber of the exhibition? Do the entry fees cover only ONE entry or multiple entries?;
- Rights Grabbing: you’d be amazed at just how ballsy the Terms & Conditions can be for some competitions. My suggestion: DO NOT enter these and caution your fellow photographers:
“By entering the Contest, each contestant grants to Sponsor an exclusive, royalty-free and irrevocable right and license to publish, print, edit or otherwise use the contestant’s submitted entry, in whole or in part, for any purpose and in any manner or media (including, without limitation, the Internet) throughout the world in perpetuity, and to license others to do so, all without limitation or further compensation."
Always read carefully the Terms & Conditions for the event and if the sponsor/host plans to use your image forever without paying you, you need to reconsider that competition. Photographer attorney Carolyn E. Wright covers such issues on her blog; follow it.
Here are a few worthy competitions that may be worth entering:
B&W Magazine: hosts both a Single Image Contest and a Portfolio Contest
International Photography Awards
Black & White Spider Awards
Prix de la Photographie, Paris (Px3)
The Center for Fine Art Photography: hosts a number of juried exhibitions each year
If I am considering entering a competition that I have not previously, I research the juror (their background; their taste in photographs; and the type of photographs that they have previously awarded) and view winning entries from past years. As a desert landscape photographer working nearly exclusively in monochrome, there is little chance that I’ll be accepted into a competition that typically awards color photography with an emphasis on social commentary. Save your money and time - find the competitions and jurors that are a better fit for your work.
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