I entered and won a national photo contest this past month. This is a bit unusual for me as I’m not a fan of photo competitions, and there’s a bit of history there.
I got my first digital camera in 2001. It was exciting, being able to take virtually unlimited photos without paying for processing. Well, not actually unlimited as I only had a single 128 MB CompactFlash card to start with and battery life was crap in those days. Compared to film… Yah.
None of the scads of digital pictures I was taking were keepers. Some were passable, but most were wretched. I needed to learn more, so I joined the local photo club. THAT was an experience. The club was divided into film and digital camps at that time. The digital crowd thought the film users should just retire already. The film users wished the digital shooters would get back to licking Satan’s hooves and stop bespoiling their venerable club. This made the print competitions contentious. Understatement.
Many photo clubs seem to develop their pecking order through who is winning what and how often in the print competitions. Further to this, the competition judges will bring certain biases and preconceptions to their roles. Judges who shoot landscapes know what they want to see. Same for the judges who like to shoot candids and portraits. The judges who are passionate about film and who love the smell of Ilford blix know what they don’t want to see: inkjet prints. I don’t think any of the digital shooters had infiltrated the club’s judging at that point, not that they didn’t try.
Almost all of this was above my head at the time other than the disdain of the film users for me as they were hardly subtle. All I can tell you is that I entered print after print into competitions. I lost. Every time. Some of it was on me because, being honest, I was unskilled at that stage of being a photographer. A good chunk of it was on the judges who could not see past their biases. It felt hopeless.
Consistently losing every competition you enter becomes morale damaging after a while. Not being taken seriously in the photo club that had become a big part of my life because I couldn’t place in any competition also stomped my soul. I stopped attending club meetings. I also quit shooting for several months because I figured there was no point. I sucked, my pictures sucked, and after a year in a photo club I hadn’t earned a single ribbon to show for all of the competition prints I’d made. This was even the tipping point for my landing a Prozac prescription.
I eventually picked up my camera again. I signed up for a good photography course by correspondence, and I loaned out and devoured library books on photography. I got better with my camera. A lot better, actually. I have reached the point where I function at an advanced level in my craft, both esthetically and technically. I can walk into any situation with any camera and shoot a portfolio no matter how challenging it is. I can also clean up almost all of the first place ribbons in most local print competitions I enter these days, except that I don’t. At least not often.
People create photographs for different reasons. Some want to remember. Some want to inform. Some want to inspire. Some want to provoke. Some want to comfort. Some want to entertain. In my case, photography is about engendering feelings of contentment and serenity. The act of creating an image brings me both. Being able to share this serenity and contentment with others through my work makes photography even more personally meaningful. It is therefore anathema to me to have my photographs make someone else unhappy, or worse, turn a pastime they love – photography – into something that drags them down.
Perpetually losing print competitions did that to me. I started to devalue myself. I stopped being authentic as a photographer because I started taking the pictures I thought others wanted to see and stopped following my own intrigue. I didn’t like always being on the losing end when it happened to me and I don’t want to do it to others. I especially do not want to do this to newer photographers who are learning their way and who most need to be lifted up.
This is why I strongly dislike print competitions and don’t want to be in them. So why did I enter this one?
There are some people on my contact list in nextdoor.ca who are entirely too good at guilt trips. They liked the images I regularly share in the local online groups and they wanted to see their community in the national contest, so they pressed my guilt button. It worked because I really do like living here in Strathmore and I too felt our town deserved to be showed off.
I tossed in a few images with the correct contest hashtag and then sort of forgot about it. I logged in a couple of weeks later and was surprised with a notification in my feed showing my image as one of the finalists for the grand prize ($500 voucher for AirBNB). It was the final hours of voting and I had over half the votes. The next morning I was the winner.
The contest entries could be seen by scrolling backwards using the #lovemyneighbourhood hashtag. I had missed most of it so I decided to see what had been shared. There were some good images. There were a lot of amateur snapshots that I felt did justice to the stories the artists were sharing, while not being memorable. You could tell that some photos were professional in nature, but that most obviously came from amateurs. The guilt suddenly started setting in.
I’ve had professional training. I’ve worked as a professional photographer. I know how light works, I know how films and sensors work, and I know the technical limits of the hardware and software I use. I’ve spent the past two decades rigrously studying photographic composition and the psychology behind it. This gives me a ridiculous advantage over amateur shutterbugs and it left me feeling lousy. It’s like Mike Tyson boxing with a grade schooler.
Am I proud of being able to show off a special moment from the area I call home to the rest of Canada? Yes. Is it nice to see others in town sharing in the pride of their town winning? Hell yes. It’s all great except for the part where I beat up some grade schoolers. I (and other pros) should know better than to participate in competitions with amateur photographers as it robs the them of their opportunities to shine and can also damage their morale (something I personally relate to).
This will be my last photo competition for a long time. I will try to stick to photo exhibitions in the future, and if I do compete, I will try to compete only within my “weight class”.