Photography Isn’t a Contest

Paris, 2015 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

I wanted to write to you about photography contests — why I generally recommend staying away from them.

First of all, if you enter your photo into a contest, you suddenly become a slave to the opinions of others.

The most important person to please in your photography is yourself. Not judges. Not random people voting on your photos.

Do you really care about what others think about your photos? If so, why?

I personally care what others think about my photos. But the caveat is that I only care about the opinions of my close friends, family, and loved ones. To me, Cindy is my ultimate editor — what she ultimately thinks about my photos matters more than the opinions of thousands.

What photo contests are good for

Of course, there are always caveats to every opinion I have.

First of all, I think contests are good in the sense that they force you to edit down your portfolio, and choose your best work. In the past, when I submitted photos for contests, I had to choose only 3-5 of my best photos. This gave me a great opportunity to really sit down, and evaluate my work, and my favorite images.

However at the same time, entering photo contests added a lot of stress and frustration to my life.

I thought that I was a great photographer, and I “deserved” to win — or at least place. But the problem was, a lot of winning a photography contest is luck.

My experiences as a photo judge

Being on the other side as a judge in photo contests, whoever wins/loses/advances is based on luck.

For example, the sad reality is that the people who I judged earlier on had more time and attention than people I judged later. If you look at thousands of entries to a photo contest, you eventually hit fatigue. At the end, you are zipping through the photos a lot quicker than photos in the beginning.

Another problem — in past street photography contests I judged, I knew a handful of the photos, and the photographers. Of course, this creates a natural bias in myself — especially if I personally know the photographer, or am familiar with the shots.

Not only that, but the personal taste of the judges is such a huge determinant whether a participant advances or not. For example, if I love vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream — I will be biased towards vanilla ice cream.

The same goes with photography. Vanilla ice cream is like black and white photography, whereas chocolate ice cream might be color photography. If I shoot black and white photography, I might generally be biased towards participants who submit black and white photos. The same goes with color photography.

In life, there are no winners or losers

The spartans prevented their youth from participating in contests and games where there were clear “winners” and “losers”. Why?

Because they didn’t want their citizens to feel the sting of “losing”, or the ego-inflation of “winning”. Even when the 300 spartans died defending the city, they said that the 300 spartans were “slaughtered” (not ‘conquered’).

We aren’t all fighting for the same pie in life

As a personal rule, moving forward, I’m going to try my best to avoid games, contests, or activities where there are clear “winners” and “losers.” Why? Because in life, there is no “winning” or “losing.”

Life isn’t a zero-sum game, with clear winners or losers. Just because I win doesn’t mean you lose. Just because you lose, doesn’t mean I win.

In life, we can all be winners. We aren’t all fighting over the same pie. Rather, we can create more pies, and create more prosperity, happiness, and good-will in the world.

So don’t be a slave to the opinions of others. If you plan on entering photography contests (or any contests), realize the inherent biases of the judges and the system. And if not winning photo contests disappoint you, I would just say don’t play the game.

Always shoot for yourself, and first seek to please yourself.

Stay true to yourself,

Read more: Personal Photography >