About two years ago I joined one of the popular photographers’ associations in UK. I not only owned a DSLR, but actually found some lovely people I could call clients and they were happy to part with their cash to pay for what I still considered a hobby. I wanted to be a “proper” photographer, I wanted to belong. Being a part of photographers’ association made me feel like part of the crowd I aspired to be like one day. “I will feel less of a fraud, and more like a “professional”, I thought.
Then other associations followed. I felt more serious about what I was doing, I belonged to a group of photographers who are all about baby’s safety, or so it claimed. I was one of them, safe, professional, the lot. I had all the badges.
A few months in, I realised these fabulous professional bodies run all sorts of competitions. I could send in my work for a fee and be put up against some amazing togs in the industry, and see what my pixels were worth. I had to pay for it, but everyone needs to make a living, so there I was, sending my first earned pounds to the industry “gurus”, to look look at my work and hopefully award me something I could then plaster on my Facebook page and send over to my folks, so that they felt a bit better about me spending £5k on gear, when I only made £200 at that stage from my clients.
I was hopeful, and boom! Bronze badges sprinkled from the sky. I felt great. I was now an “award winning photographer”. About a month later I sent over double the amount of money, and just like when playing a lottery, turns out I did indeed need to be “in it to win it”, more Bronzes followed. I felt rather smug.
I was looking at the Silvers Nina Mace was getting, and I remember thinking her images were so perfect. I wanted to be awarded a Silver badge, but I was not Nina Mace. Nina knew her shit, I was just a fraud with a camera.
I had aspirations. I got a few more badges. Life was good. Now I wanted to be a “qualified” photographer. I submitted a panel. After what felt like ages, I got in touch with the said association, only to find out they’d lost my panel completely. Well, ok. What do we do now? Can a panel be lost? I was a bit surprised, but hey, we are all humans, so I gave them the benefit of doubt. My panel was miraculously found a few days later. I got “the call”. The lady on the phone told me she’s looking at my work as we spoke and how gorgeous it was, and that she cannot see any problems with me getting my qualifications. I have an odd sense of humour and sometimes it stands in the way of me achieving greatness. This was one of those times. I responded to her comment about my beautiful work with “how about we skip the “qualified” bit and put me up for a craftsman panel straight away?” There was an awkward silence on the phone, I recognise that silence very well. She did not get the joke. Shortly after, I got this email:
The Judges have met this afternoon and Judged your Panel for Qualified Baby & Newborn Photographer with The XXXXXX.
I write to advise you that unfortunately your panel has failed.
FEEDBACK FROM THE JUDGES FOR BOTH OF YOUR PANELS
The areas in which your panel has failed are as follows:
Wrong lens choice;
Colour balance selection in camera and post production needs improvement.
The basic fundamentals of photography are not understood which is relevant in the posing, lighting and composition of your images.”
(SO BASICALLY EVERYTHING WAS DOG SHIT)
“The Judges advise that before you submit again that they recommend that you have at least one mentoring session for your photography to meet the criteria for qualification with XXXXXX. However, it has been pointed out by The Judges that they feel that with the correct image selection and mentoring to guide you they see no reason why you wouldn’t pass with your next submission.
WHAT DO THE JUDGES LOOK FOR?
The Judges have a set criteria to consider. The criteria is based around the fact that photography is a combination of art and science, the skills for which can be combined into distinct groups, bearing equal weight within the judging process.
Subject and Story Telling
Demonstrate the understanding of the basic fundamentals of photography.
Composition and Creativity
Technical and Post Production excellence.
There is also an over-riding arch to all of these ‘Congruence and Harmony’. In other words all the components above must work together to create ‘one’.”
So I failed. I felt discouraged. I felt unwanted and as though my stupid comment cock blocked me yet again from achieving greatness, but I now had a clear path to follow: composition, creativity, lighting, post production. It all needed improving. I got to work. I wanted to be Nina Mace. I wanted to be Rob Mank. I wanted to be up there with the greatest.
Rob essentially adopted me and my unskilled eye. Zoe Bond fixed my inability to polish pixels. I was not where I wanted to be yet, but I got damn far in a short period of time. I looked at the competitions again after a few months of hard work and then it hit me. Was it the fact I got better or the competition requirements got slacker? I looked at the images getting awarded and I struggled to see the reasons they were getting the badges. They were dog shit, just like the images I was awarded my bronzes for. But whilst I was running an upgrade programme on my skills, all levels and awards seemed to have dropped in standards. I wanted to be judged against images I aspired to create, but those were no longer in the running for gold. Except for a couple of nice ones, nothing made me look twice. Not one made me want to say “wow”.
I decided to expand my horizons and look for another association to send my work to. Surely there must be a higher standard somewhere, I want to be amongst greatness and aspire to create that too. I don’t want to be the big fish in a pond filled with dog piss. I would much rather surround myself with creators who demonstrate a level I, too, want to represent one day.
I found a nice, little monthly competition who gave away only two, instead of three levels of awards. I sent my work, and all my images got awarded. There was only a handful of badges given out, so it made me feel special. I don’t want to get a badge together with another 300 people. I want that badge to mean something. It did for a couple of months. “This new association is great, and free to enter, fab. Finally people who know their shit and don’t sprinkle awards at every overexposed magenta potato sack.” It didn’t last long. Two months in, and the same association was flooded with mediocre pics I would be ashamed to add to a gallery even as a filler image. Even if my clients were partially blind. Even as a model call.
I stopped sending my work over. It didn’t matter it was free. It felt like winning a running marathon against a paraplegic. I am not claiming I am Erich Caparas, but I got through the stage in my life where I could not see a crap white balance and bad masking. My computer was calibrated, I worked hard, my prices tripled in one year, and I was capable of producing work that was ok.
It made me question many things.
For ages, we were admiring others getting high scores in competitions, we want to be where they are. We get better, it becomes easier, but then we find ourselves on the same scoring shelf as work that requires.. well.. work. Competitions are heading towards oblivion, and people stop caring about the scores, and entering. Every month, after the results are published, hundreds of screenshots are being sent amongst photographers, with just three letters: “WTF”. We stop entering, since the reputation of the awarding bodies got tarnished in our eyes. We don’t want to be judged amongst rubbish. Even if at one point it was all we were capable of producing. We stop entering. Awarding bodies still need money, so in order to encourage more people to enter, they freely give away their awards to just about anyone. There are still a few great photographers who take part in those monthly show offs, and they regularly get awarded, which is fine, but how are they supposed to feel if their work is joined on the same shelf by images of lower and lower standard each month?
Whose fault is it that the level of work at various national competitions fell on it’s face in recent months? Is it photographers who got worse? I don’t think so. Whatever stage we are at, we are better to where we were a week ago, so it’s hard for us to judge subjectively where we stand. I don’t blame photographers of the said questionable work, who get awarded. For months I was that person. I got tons of awards for poor work. So many in fact, I should rebrand myself “an award winning crap producer”.
Awards should not be given to make the poor producers amongst us feel better. They should be given to people, who create aspirational photography. Who shoot images we would all want to shoot. Who make us stop and stare, who inspire copy cats and Pinterest moms. Awards should be given to innovators, triers, emotion capturers with good technical abilities. We should promote good photography. Yes, yes, art is subjective, but one should be able to distinguish slack work from a potential wall art material, when judging in national photo competitions.
I would like my awards to mean something, not just to my Facebook followers, but to me. I don’t want to get a badge alongside 200 different people, I want to have more picky judges, who on top of being amazing at their work on the panel, can THEMSELVES produce good work.
I don’t want photography competitions to be the tissue for our tears, because we need social approval as artists and little png badges are that. I have my friends, my husband, my folks, my kids for that kind of support. I want to know, that when I get an award, it’s going to be recognised as a real achievement in my eyes, against tough competition. It’s going to be recognised amongst my peers. THEN, and only then, dear awarding bodies, the cash will flow. I will happily pay to have my work judged properly, by people I aspire to shoot like, alongside other photographers whose work I admire. If I am paying for a badge that means nothing to me, I may as well make one myself.
PS: I do realise by writing this blog post, I just shot myself in my award winning foot, however I don’t really care. If this changes anything, even remotely, it was worth it.