In February of this year, I entered a photography competition for the first time. It was kind of a big deal for me, because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my work. However, after a couple of years seriously back into photography, I found out about an upcoming regional show sponsored by a local gallery and decided it might be fun just to have one or two of my photographs hanging in a public place for a month. I simply wanted the new experience of competing in a photography contest. I really didn’t expect to win anything. Surprisingly, all three of my photos were accepted into this first exhibition and one (The Bone Collector) actually placed in its category.
When I entered that first contest, I had no idea how much a little competition could change my life and my photography for the better in the space of only about eight months. Although not everything about this regional photography competition was positive (to find out why, read my post, Thinking About Entering a Photography Competition? Read This First!), I was thrilled by the experience and found that I wanted more. Seeing my own photographs hanging with the work of other artists also helped me to more realistically gauge the quality and emotional impact of the images I was producing and the uniqueness of my vision. I came away from my maiden contest wanting more.
So, I went online and searched for other photography competitions that might be right for me. Various websites list contests, deadlines, and entry fees. So far this year, I have entered seven photography competitions and one unjurored online call for entries. To date, my photographs have been rejected by two competitions, accepted by three gallery-based exhibition competitions, and accepted into one online exhibition, while I have two entries outstanding (fingers crossed on these).
These competitions have impacted my life and my photography in a number of significant and positive ways. If you similarly capitalize on the opportunities they present, I think you’ll find that photography competitions can have a dramatic impact on your own life and work. Here are some of the ways it can happen.
Eight Ways Competition Can Improve Your Photography
1. Solidifying your vision, while defining projects and goals: The acts of finding contest themes that fit your body of work and combing through your archives to identify potentially competitive images provide you with a couple of reasons to peruse and assess your photography.
As you think about where your photos might fit and take a comprehensive look at your work, you’ll learn a lot about your vision and how you have translated that vision into the images you create. You’ll realize the themes and approaches in your work that resonate most with your sense of self. This insight will help you identify existing projects and set new goals for your creativity, both of which will help you hone and focus your creative vision.
2. Improving your editing skills: As you engage in a retrospective search for your strongest photographs and themes, you’ll become more experienced at assuming a dispassionate approach to editing your work. If you don’t already have one or more portfolios, the review process will likely spark a desire to organize your best work in this way. The editing skills you gain will also give you more confidence in my work.
3. Setting up an online portfolio: My second photographic exhibition was what pushed me to set up my own online portfolio for the first time. When you get into an exhibition, you’ll be asked to provide a web address where people can find out about you and see more of your work. This is a place where you can publish a bio, artist’s statement, and post galleries of your best work.
An online portfolio fronts your work to the world and makes it much easier to introduce your photography to others, particularly in the context of social media. For me, setting up an online portfolio encouraged me to think more seriously about how I want to contribute to photography and about its meaning in my life, so it quickly bloomed into a dedicated website and blog.
4. Writing about your craft and your photographs: When you enter competitions and get into exhibitions, you’ll find yourself in contexts that encourage (or even require) that you write more about photography. At a minimum, you’ll need to write one or more artist’s statements and a bio. Hopefully, you’ll also flesh out your website by writing a little about your projects and some individual photographs.
Although ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is a common saying, nothing can really substitute for the artist’s written perspective on her or his work. People will connect much more with your photographs if you combine them with some insightful prose. Adding writing to your creative process also naturally helps you to articulate and solidify your artistic vision and the significance of your projects, plus you’ll speak more coherently and confidently about your work.
5. Finding meaning and purpose in photography: All the above helped me to realize the role photography plays in improving and maintaining my emotional well-being. I learned that my projects emerge from subconscious places of sorrow and joy, disappointment, hope, and my need for insight into the meaning of my life experiences.
You don’t have to become a full-time, professional photographer for it to change your life. Moving from defining yourself based on what you do for a living to what you do to live is a revolutionary achievement in American society.
This change in reference point liberates you from the feelings of disappointment, regret, failure, and crisis you experience when your professional dreams don’t pan out or your life unexpectedly goes off the rails. It helps you to understand that your efforts have significance and importance, even when they don’t generate an income; creativity in any form feeds the soul and is inherently of value.
6. Making connections with others: Entering photography competitions naturally exposes your work to others and brings you into contact with potentially important people in the field. Getting into exhibitions puts your work in front of jurors, gallery directors/owners, editors, critics, art patrons, and other photographers. These people are potential contacts and may end up being sources of unanticipated, important opportunities.
Always chose your best work for competitions, because as you have some success, a few people in this relatively small community will begin to recognize and appreciate your work. Put effort into establishing and nourishing connections with other photographers. You’ll learn from their work and you might just get the opportunity to collaborate with one or two, which can expose your work to a whole new audience and give you a fresh perspective on photographic creativity. Who knows where more exposure might lead?
7. Getting impartial feedback on your work: When jurors don’t select your work for inclusion in an exhibition and/or for an award, you shouldn’t assume that it’s because your photos aren’t good enough. Most must choose 5% or less of images out of the hundreds of submissions (and there really is no accounting for taste). Entering contests does expose your photographs to critique from ‘experts’, but you really only receive direct feedback when you get to meet jurors or others at, for example, exhibition openings.
Many jurors and gallery directors also serve as portfolio reviewers. My second photography competition didn’t include any awards, but it did include the opportunity to get an in-depth portfolio review from an established and experienced gallery owner. Impartial feedback helps to contextualize your work in contemporary photography and to refine and improve your projects.
8. Making sales and getting commissions: You shouldn’t start entering photography competitions with the goal of making money. You will spend more on entry fees, printing, framing, shipping, etc., than you will ever win in awards. However, just having and sharing a website exposes your images to opportunities for sales that otherwise would never have occurred.
As soon as I set up my online portfolio and started sharing the link with acquaintances, I started making some sales and even got my first fine art photography commission. This is something I hadn’t anticipated, and it probably would never have happened without a good vehicle for distribution; a professional website showcasing my best work and my personal story. If you also write about your photographs, you’ll be marketing your experience; the emotional and personal in your photographs. Sales and positive feedback will improve your confidence and encourage you to take your photography seriously.
Realizing the Benefits of Photography Competitions
What happens when you solidify your creative vision, become a better editor, establish a defined, publicly accessible portfolio, write about your projects and photographs, and find meaning and purpose in your work? What happens when you make connections with influencers and other photographers, get productive feedback on your work, and start selling your photographs? You become a better and more confident photographer. If you take feedback to heart and integrate it into your process, you will also learn more about your art and become more technically proficient.
But these things don’t just happen. Improving your photography through competition takes hard work, perseverance, and, most of all, the ability to recognize the opportunities created by the smallest of successes. This post is meant to help you capitalize on those opportunities.
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-- Angela Martin
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