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My thesis on fine art photography competitions

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Some visitors of this site may wonder why I haven't received any photography awards during the past years. The reason for this is because since the start of my involvement with fine art photography, I have made a profound decision not to participate in such contests and this is related to 2 issues:

The first one has to do with the fact that over the past years, the world of fine art photography is being stormed by contest platforms that claim to be of high quality in judging fine art photos. Shamelessly, some of them (and alarmingly more appear each year), are run by a single person, one person that runs 3-4 contests that otherwise seem to be independent from each other. Many of these platforms are known to be nothing more than "cash machines" designed to give awards for the sake of popularity and self promotion of the photographer but what they actually do is make the people behind them richer every year. People not related to photography and outside the world of contests don't realize the fact that us photographers receive many emails as calls for entry almost on a daily basis. In fact, these emails become more frequent as the contest is about to close for entries and even some of them are almost begging us to participate. Why you ask? because these contests are mostly run for money, so more entries means more money. Yes, the end of it is very rewarding (for some). Many photographers actually feel way better if their site is adorned by dozens of award badges and it is true that many page visitors are attracted by these "regalia" when they want to book a workshop or buy a fine art print.

What bothers me in this situation is the fact that almost everyone can organize such a contest, call it high class and give awards to some photographers. If you are awarded (and all of the good photos sooner or later do), you feel like getting a smashing upgrade as a photographer. Everyone in the contest chain is happy, the photographer has received an award that shows and makes use of, the platform organizer that sees his bank account filled with money, the potential customer that feels "safe" for making the right decision to book a workshop with such an accomplished photographer. Well, I decided that I won't be part of this business chain. If someone wants to book a workshop with me and learn how I make these photos or buy a fine art print, it should be done with appreciation in mind, it should be done because he/she likes so much what I do that wants to learn my workflow or simply appreciates my work so much that he/she wants to have one of my prints as a fine art interior decoration.

But, are all fine art photography contests money-driven? Are all of them designed just to make someone rich? No, not all contests are that dubious. There are hundreds of low-profile contests on social media (mainly Facebook) which I consider them to be the unseen part of the "contests iceberg" but still live and breathe by feeding the photographers ego and lust for recongnition. There are also contests that only want to cover their costs but on the other hand, all fine-art related contests put the finger on the quality of art and this brings us to my second objection on this matter (which is even more significant than the first one):

The second reason has to do with my philosophy on judging a fine art photo. This type of photography is like no other. It doesn't deal with things like successfully catching the moment (street, reportage etc) or classic landscape shots where (almost) all that is required is good technical abilities and being there at the right moment. We are talking about photography as a form of art, a means for self-expression, so it shouldn't be related to contests because art cannot be judged or measured. These are not your ordinary photography contests, these are about art in photography so when you put your art against my art, the contest becomes futile by design. More to that, art is not measurable, there is no measure of quality in such type of photography, so it is very difficult and tricky to appoint awards like we do in a sprint race. There is no photographer faster or stronger than the others, all are equally great in different ways, or, quoting Zen Shin, "a flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it, it just blooms"...

So, in the end, who fails in a fine art photography contest? The jurors or the contestants? Does the juror fail to "see" and feel what a fine art photo really is or does the contestant actually fails to meet a juror's aesthetics standards of a photo worth to be awarded? This is the one question that everybody should answer before deciding to submit some photos and pay to be judged and of course this question has no answer. Indeed, those awards are all about photos worth published and be shown to the public but so do hundreds of other art works that didn't make it not even to a HM (honorable mention) level. The factor of "by chance" is really crucial to such contests. It is a fact that if a certain photo is awarded by jury A, the same photo might be rejected by jury B. It is a common thing that happens to all similar contests because all photos are judged on the basis of aesthetics, which are purely and solely subjective in nature.

If I was asked to choose between winning a contest and answering questions for an interview or presentation of my works, I would surely choose the latter. You can learn so many things about a photographer by reading his interview compared to seeing a photo he made. Parallel to that, being represented by a fine art gallery is also very crucial to a photographer's profile since it allows art collectors to get in touch with the photographer through his printed and presented work. It is a different level and aspect of recognition.

For all those reasons written and explained above, I decided to be absent from such competitions and put my energy and interest solely on galleries, exhibitions and making photos that I consider to be a very profound part of me and genuine emanations of the interaction between me and a scene. After all, no award's prestige will last so much as a framed photo that decorates an office or a living room. Some things live at levels much higher than competitions...

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