Do we really need competitions, awards, and prizes?

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For a while, I have wanted to write about a topic that seems pressing, at least to me, and that is being talked about a lot, especially once you meet photographers or critics for a drink: competitions, awards, and prizes. In the following, please bear with me, I’m going to try to string together a few strands.

To begin with, I’m amazed to see how many photographers are able to use the words “award winning” in front of their profession. Are there that many awards?

In addition, out of the three major photography prizes, the Hasselblad Award, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, and the Prix Pictet, two are bankrolled by organizations that don’t necessarily do as much good as their photographic philanthropy might want the public to believe. For me, it makes perfect sense for a camera maker to hand out a prize. But a company behind a stock market, or a bank? Aren’t those people co-responsible for, let’s say, the 2008 market crash that destroyed so many people’s livelihoods? Is that the kind of sponsorship the world of photography ought to be seeking?

Then there are those various issues and/or scandals that keep popping up, many of which are directly linked to some competition or prize. For example, World Press Photo (WPP) have been bravely battling with the topic of how to deal with image manipulation. The actual issue at hand aside (which, for me, isn’t quite so well-defined, but that’s a different topic), the task is to at least in theory check the thousands and thousands of submissions. In fact, any competition that is flooded with submissions is likely to face the same conundrum: how can you even do justice to all those pictures? Obviously, you can’t look at every picture for more than a second, maybe less, because there just isn’t enough time. As far as I can tell, WPP are doing a great job making sure their winners are water tight. But of course, something might fall through the cracks, or someone on the internet is unhappy about something, and then there’s the next “scandal.” So competitions with thousands of entries not only have to identify the “best” (however that might be defined), they also have to do all the various other checks along the way: manipulation, ethics… That’s crazy.

Beyond that, there is the question of how or why a single photo should somehow represent the world of press photography for any given year, especially given the sheer flood of submissions, the sheer number of photographs we all see every day. Does picking one photograph out of thousands still make sense to say something about, well, anything really? Even beyond news photography, I’m just not so sure any longer.

What is more, there appear to be ample ethical issues that often pop up. As far as I can tell, the latest case is a photographer who not only Photoshoped someone else’s picture into one of his (!) but also photographed an underage “sex worker” getting raped — to then submit those pictures to a competition, which, in turn, used it for promotional purposes (see this Petapixel article plus this Photo Fundamentalist follow-up). Beyond the direct questions of ethics concerning the photographs, what boggled my mind was that said photographer was so keen on getting an award for his pictures. Not to single him out, because he was just doing what apparently a large number of photographers are engaged in: sending their work to competitions, which usually involves paying some “fee,” to get an award.

I mean I get that when, let’s say, you grow a particularly big and/or nice vegetable in your garden or allotment, or when you own a particularly good-looking dog or cat, you might enter it in some competition, hoping to get some recognition. But to see this same principle applied in the world of photography, especially when the pictures at hand show something that’s gruesome — that just feels a little bit weird to me.

I used to run my own competition on this site. I had it set up in ways to counter what I saw (and still see) as wrong in the world of competitions. To begin with, it was free to enter. In addition, the guest jurors had to judge the pictures without knowing the photographers’ names, to create an equal playing field. Late last year, I decided to have the 2016 edition be the last. The whole idea of competitions had just started to feel wrong to me.

Of course, seen purely from a business point of view running a competition for free was a dumb idea. I could have made some serious money every year, charging some “submission fee.” That is, after all, what competitions do. And that is what has irked me about competitions for a long time: many of them are really just barely disguised ways to fleece photographers (not all, of course, but many). For me, there’s just too much that’s wrong with that, in particular since it creates an unequal playing field, where photographers who can’t afford to play the game simply lose out.

So seriously, what do we need competitions, awards, or prizes for? It seems to me that there simply are too many problems, regardless of how you look at it. I’m sure it’s nice to win something (I wouldn’t know, given I’m award free), and as I said, for vegetables or show dogs, I get the idea. But for photographs?

Especially in this day and age where there are so many photographs around — so many of them genuinely good — what’s the point of (metaphorically speaking) putting a ribbon on a small number? What’s the point, I should ask, besides either filling the coffers through submission “fees” or, in the case of those major prizes, polishing the image of some rather unseemly organization in two out of the three cases?

What’s the value of competitions or awards if there are so many of them? If so many photographers are “award winning,” if so many photobooks are on some usually not-so-short shortlist, what distinction is supposed to be communicated here?

One final point. There’s ample evidence that the use of Facebook makes people unhappy: “people who gave up Facebook for a week reported higher levels of satisfaction than those who continued to use the social network.” So if you’re on Facebook (I’m not) and you’re not one of those people winning something — does seeing all those announcements of prizes and awards etc. make you any happier? I’m not sure.