• Steve Ball

Photography Competitions - Valuable or Destructive

Landscape photographers have a plethora of competitions that are open to entry every year. The question I have been reflecting on is whether participation in such competitions is valuable or destructive, particularly in respect of confidence and creativity?

Over the past few years I have made an annual entry into the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. It is fair to say that I have been unsuccessful, only being shortlisted on one occasion and even then not progressing beyond that stage. Each year I have entered with confidence that some of my images may be considered as good as those that make the annual publication, but have been brought back down to earth at the point of rejection. Initially my confidence suffered and I questioned whether I had ever taken a photograph that would be regarded as good by those people who are chosen to act as judges each year because of their professional reputation.

The annual rejection of my entries led me to reflect on the type of photographs I was submitting. I looked through every copy of the LPOTY book going back twelve years to see if I could see where I was failing, and I changed the focus of my photography to try and produce the style of image that appeared in the book, not necessarily as an award winner, but one which might help me to achieve my goal of having a published image. Unfortunately my success rate failed to improve and my confidence dipped even further. It was at that point that I started to question what was my motivation for entering the competition in the first place...was I chasing an award, was I looking for some level of validation about my achievements as a landscape photographer, was I looking for recognition from within my peer group? I also reflected on the direction my photography was taking, and the style of photographs I was creating.

In asking those questions of myself I quickly came to a number of conclusions that answer the question I have posed at the beginning of this article. The conclusions are only relevant to me because we all have different reasons and motivations for taking photographs. In conclusion, and purely from my own perspective I feel that photography competitions are destructive, and before you come to the view that I am just bitter about my lack of success, I will offer my reasoning for reaching that conclusion.

First of all I suffered a huge blow to my confidence as a consequence of the annual cycle of rejection. It is highly likely that my photographs don't compare in quality of composition, subject matter, or capture of light, in truth I think that is irrelevant when considered in the context of the overall feeling and impact of rejection. The scale of applicants means that the chances of success are relatively low, and we all know that at the point of entry. However, just the fact alone that many applicants are rejected year after year is bound to have a negative impact on their confidence and self-perception of their photography. You can almost say it is an inevitable consequence of the competition taking place.

The second reason for reaching my conclusion is the negative impact on my creative style. I reached a point where the reason I was taking photographs of the landscape was to try and take a successful competition image. That was not the point I started from as a landscape photographer, my original intention was to take photographs of the landscape which generated an emotional reaction for me, and which I liked regardless of others opinions. I realised that I had lost that purpose in pursuit of validation or admiration. Quite simply, I had stopped taking photographs for me, and replaced them with photographs that I hoped other people would admire. The purpose of my photography had changed and that had resulted in a reduction in my creativity.

So, where does that leave me? Well, I acknowledge that photography competitions have their place in our creative world, and that they are exactly what some people need as a source of inspiration and validation. However, I now know that they are not a source of motivation for me, in fact they are quite the opposite. I have realised that external validation is not very important to me, nor are the awards that come with competition. In fact I would question whether photography should be seen in a competitive light at all. Has anyone the right to say whether a photograph is good or otherwise? I would argue that we only have the right to say whether we like something or don't like something. Whether an image is good or otherwise is surely a subjective view. I have decided going forward that I am going to give the competitive side of photography a miss and focus solely on taking photographs I like and which are purely for my own assessment and enjoyment.

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