Warning: This post is written by a beginner professional photographer and many of the thoughts may be too subjective, inexperienced, inaccurate or even wrong. Reader discretion is advised.
This is probably the best epoch for photography: this craft has never been more democratic, the amount of (new) photographers is overwhelming, the quantity of photos produced everyday is astonishing and the quality is fairly good (not only because of faster cameras and lenses). So, what are the most important things to do while starting in the business of photography? You have to be good and get noticed.
I am not going to talk about the first point, I’d rather focus on the last one. In order to get noticed (by photo editors, curators, agencies, galleries) contacts in the field may be very handy, but the question remains, how to get them? As I see it, a powerful tool to start are the photography contests, festivals and fairs… BUT, there are just too many to choose from and nothing secures that if you enter a contest and then get chosen, you will have success and your photographic career will take off. In fact, the probabilities of being chosen in a contest AND successfully launching the career are pretty low and demand LOTS of work. But you lose nothing trying, right?
That is true, unless the contest has an entry fee and then you could lose both time and money… Nowadays there is an increasing market in photography contests and festivals, which is good in one hand. On the other, there are also lots of contests and festivals that exist only for business sake. So the dilemma for a cub photographer is whether to spend those last 35 Euros in our pocket on a thing that has lots of possibilities of not bringing any benefits, or investing that money in photographic materials or food (yeah, photographers also eat).
I am not sure if I want to create a big debate about this topic, but I want to illustrate recent experiences I’ve had in this field:
One of the contests to which I applied, replied saying that they did not choose me due to the big amount of entries they had this year, but encouraged me to participate in their next events. They said that they broke the record of submissions and had around 5000 applications. If we multiply that amount by 35 Euros (for the first 5 images submitted and 3 more Euros for each additional) we reach to an amount of nearly 200 000 Euros (or perhaps more). Sure, the contest has to pay judges, organizers, has to buy prizes, print images and catalogues, etc. But I am reluctant to think this will cost that much, bearing in mind that the contest also has sponsors. Another contest told me (I’m pretty sure it was their robot secretary) that they were “impressed by my work” but did not choose me. As means of keeping me interested they offered a 10% discount for their next contest. A contest in which I was selected last year, wrote me asking if they may use one of the selected pictures in a slideshow this year in a gallery opening in New York where lots of curators and editors are supposed to attend. I was excited, but they told me that if I agree, I had to pay $60 for 4 seconds of exposure in a slideshow next to hundreds of other images… Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, this might be a pretty good business, and I agree with that.
The capitalized market has taught us one thing: if you don’t risk, you don’t get any benefits. So, to what extent should a photography enthusiast (cannot name it professional because he’s not earning any money from it) risk it’s often limited wealth? It is my opinion that before risking any money, the enthusiast should get as much information from the organizers, judges and previous events as possible. And this is why I am writing this post: to share with you my knowledge about trustworthy contests and for you to contribute if you know something that I don’t know (or to tell me if you think I’m paranoid).
I would recommend applying for every free contest. That is if you have the time to prepare your entry for each individual one. I think there are as many formats to apply as there are contests, so this may be a really tedious and time-consuming work. I would also recommend applying to every major contest like the World Press Photo, the POYi or the POY Latam (if you’re from this part of the world) or the Sony World Photography Awards. It is true that the chance of winning is small, but nothing is impossible as shown by some of my close friends and colleagues. And finally, I would like to recommend these contests (feel free to add other contests or festivals in the comments bellow or in our Facebook page):
Human rights through visual story telling.