Competitions, Do They Help or Hinder?

As every budding artist knows, there comes a time in our creative and professional development when we feel our work is ready to be unveiled to a wider and more subjective audience. Family and close friends are fantastic for boosting the confidence but somewhere deep down something niggled in my curiosity to how I would stack up against others in my field. I am never ignorant to the fact nor do I believe my work to be one hundred percent perfect and not in need of some improvement, but rather that I need the critical or aesthetic eyes of someone else to look over my pieces objectively. I honestly believe we are often our own worst critics; we have a tendency to be almost romantically involved with our creations and unable to disconnect emotionally, to see them clearly. That’s why other people’s opinions, especially those such as our piers, who we respect and value their expertise, can be so helpful in our artistic development.

How much should we really care, though, about what others think of our work? This is a really important and difficult question for everyone, in practically every facet of our lives. In this case, it is even more vital to understand the role of criticism and other opinions, because many an artists career was destroyed in its infancy by bad advice or being too concerned with what someone else thought. Criticism needs to be taken with a caveat; that it is all based on opinions, and nobody is truly right or wrong about creative pursuits. It is all subjective, perfection is in the eye of the beholder.

So this brings us around to photography competitions and how my views have changed over the past few years. I’ve actually entered a few and done relatively well, but afterwards, when I’ve thought through what happened and examined my own motivations for competing, the whole process has felt a bit strange. My overall goal is to improve my photography and improve the connection my photography has with my audience. I want people to see my work and feel a resonance with the landscape, with the world around them. Competitions, in my mind, have become some of the most perverse and possibly harmful things I could be motivated by in pursuing that goal. They necessitate a changing of sensibilities when you’re looking at a subject, thinking not just about what you want to do when shooting an image, but also thinking about what a judge might want to see. Everyday life is far too competitive enough and to bring this ideology into a pursuit I use to combat these stresses of life is counterproductive at best if not psychologically harmful at worst.

Competing against other photographers for the accolades of an arbitrary judge or panel can be incredibly damaging. Placing greater importance on how I measure up to others, or how judges perceive my work, rather than on the personal rewards of engaging in some form of creative work, is not helpful for my artwork. Compete if you want to and if you think it will help your photography, but always understand why you’re doing it and what damage can be done if you care too much about the results. Photography competitions do have a place in the industry for some, just not me, but their importance should never replace the deeper satisfactions that can and should come from practicing the craft.