Once you’ve been shooting street photography for a while, you’ll start to think about entering your photos into competitions. This is understandable, as you most probably want to start getting a feel for how good your work is away from the sycophantic “likes” and “nice shot” comments of social media. After all, what better way than in a competition where the judges are big names in the street photography community? Imagine the kudos of placing or even winning a competition.
I should know. I was fortunate enough to be a winning finalist in the PDN Street 2016 competition, selected by Colin Westerbeck. I’ve also been a shortlisted finalist in the 2019 San Francisco Street Foto Festival, the Spring London Photo Show 2019 and a three times finalist in the Our Lives 2008 competition sponsored by Curries. So I certainly know all about entering photography competitions.
However, before you do decide to start entering street photography competitions, here are 5 good reasons not to.
1. It’s A Money Making Industry
The main driving motive for most street photography competitions is to make money for the organisers. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but given some of the excessive fees some charge for entry, you need to be aware of that from the beginning and understand it can be a very costly thing to start doing.
And when money is the primary rationale I think you should be questioning how effectively and fairly a competition is run. I’m aware of one high profile street photography festival that is run by a former convicted art fraudster. That’s not to suggest there’s anything dubious about that particular festival but it does demonstrate who can run these kind of things.
Equally, when I won PDN Street 2016 the main prize was to be featured in a book of the winners. However, the publishing sponsor pulled out after the competition and no book was ever published!
2. Not All Street Photography Competitions Understand Street Photography
This flows out of the money making nature of some competitions. Street photography has become massively popular and is a marketing buzzword in itself. As a result a lot of these competitions are set up by people with no understanding of street photography just simply jumping on its popularity.
To compound this further, they often appoint judges who aren’t experts on street photography. Just because a judge is a big name in the world of photography doesn’t mean they actually get street photography itself.
3. Your Chances Are Slim and It’s All Just Subjective Anyway.
Again, given street photography’s popularity, the volumes entering these competitions is huge, so statistically it’s more likely you won’t win or get placed . Usually the judges only get to see a small number of entries that have been screened and pushed through by the organisers of the competition. So don’t think some big name judge who attracted you to enter in the first place is even seeing your images.
And then, even if you are lucky enough that they do it’s all hugely subjective anyway. Some of this may be due to current fashions and fads in street photography, or that the particular judge favours a particular style or approach. Or that the judge just doesn’t get street photography. It’s just the nature of the beast.
4. Not All Judging Is As Fair As You May Think
I recently saw in a high profile street photography competition a well respected and famous street photographer select as their “Juror’s Choice” a fellow photographer from the very same photo collective they both belonged to. In other words, someone they knew personally and whose work they were more than familiar with. At best this is naïve and not something that should be permitted by the organisers.
Not only was it unfair on all those who paid and entered in good faith, but it also tarnishes others judges who make genuine decisions on the entered photos. Now I’ve seen this happen once, it does question how impartial judges truly are.
5. It Can Make You Doubt Yourself
Not being placed or shortlisted in a street photography competition, let alone not win one, can negatively impact on how you feel about your abilities and self-confidence. I’ve known photographers walk away from street photography because they never seem to get anywhere with competitions, believing they are no good.
The truth is that street photography competitions are almost a lottery and you should never take them as measure of your own ability. I know, I’ve done it countless times. My image above was one of those chosen by Colin Westerbeck to win PDN Street 2016. Yet in subsequent competitions it’s never even been shortlisted. Personally, I don’t think I can ever top being selected by Colin Westerbeck, co-author of the seminal street photography bible, ‘Bystander: A History of Street Photography‘ – so what does it matter if some other judges don’t like my work.
So there you have it, 5 good reasons why entering street photography competitions may not be for you. That’s not to suggest you shouldn’t, I’d be a hypocrite if I said not to, but you do have to weigh up the pros and cons. Hopefully, this article will help you understand where some of the cons are.
Have you had any bad experiences of street photography competitions? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments field below. Or, perhaps, you only have good things to say about them? Then please do add a comment.