Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 2 August 2019

Today’s edition of Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up is dedicated to an editorial on photography awards.


What is the value of photography awards?

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There’s been discussion on Facebook recently about the value of photography awards versus other means of promoting photography such as books. Criticism has been laid that photography awards that charge an entry fee are money-grabbers. That may be true of big international awards that attract thousands of entries by promising global exposure for a select few. The odds in these competitions are like a crapshoot, ridiculously slim.

And then there are awards that promote Australian photography both here and internationally. The Bowness and Moran awards carry substantial prize purses at $30,000 and $100,000 respectively. They both charge for entries, and are respected globally. Head On Portrait Prize, which is now one of the most coveted awards in the country, also charges an entry fee. All three host exhibitions of the winners and finalists work.

The Australian Photography Awards (APA) also charge an entry fee. Co-founded by Harriet Tarbuck and Melbourne photographer Tom Goldner, these awards are relatively new, and give Australian photographers a platform to get their work in front of professionals in the industry – entrants can receive feedback from the judges which is brilliant. Goldner is also the brains behind the Fox Darkroom & Gallery, and has put his heart and soul (and much of his own bank account) into promoting Australian photography. These awards are another way to celebrate the diverse talent we have in this country. Head On and APA winners get cash and amazing camera gear from brands like Fujifilm and Sony too. (You can see some of last year’s winners and place-getters of the APA awards in the slide show at the top of this post).

What’s the value of entering awards outside of cash prizes and camera gear?  One is that you get eyes on your work. We are all subjective creatures, even judges, but awards are not judged by a single person (this is true most of the time). Unless you’re taking photographs just for yourself, there’s no need to create photography in a vacuum. Enter awards where others will critique your work. Awards should be seen too as a way to learn about what other artists are doing. Critique the winning and finalists’ entries yourself, see who else is entering – you might be surprised to learn that well established photographers are on the awards circuit.

Belinda Mason winner of the 2019 Olive Cotton Award

There are other Australian awards that also charge an entry fee like the Maggie Diaz Portraiture Prize for Women. The finalists get their work shown at Brightspace Gallery in St. Kilda (Melbourne) and the winner walks away with $5000. This year’s Olive Cotton Award, which includes $20,000 prize, featured an exhibition of the winner (Belinda Mason) and finalists at the Tweed Regional Gallery. The Martin Kantor Portrait Prize offers $15,000 first prize and exhibition opportunities. So does the inaugural Australian Conceptual Photography Awards currently on show at Magnet Galleries in Melbourne, its first prize was $8,000.

Doesn’t sound like money-grabbing to me.

These awards and exhibitions don’t happen without cash! As we all know, arts funding for photography in this country is dismal. Money might be a dirty word, but let’s face it, not much happens without it.

What all these awards have in common is the celebration, and elevation, of photography in this country.

Exhibiting is not easy or cheap, and entering awards can be a brilliant, and relatively inexpensive, way to get in front on gallerists or curators who may be judges, the media and a new audience. Being afforded the opportunity to exhibit in a fabulous space like Brightspace is surely worth the entry fee. Most awards also promote the finalists across various media channels. You never know who might see your work or where the exposure may lead. These are some of the reasons why established photographers enter awards too.

Awards also look good on your CV and it’s something that you can talk about on social media, which of course is another way to get eyes on your work. Journalists and curators (like me) are always interested in discovering new talent. Often judging awards or keeping an eye on who are the winners and finalists proves fertile ground and is mutually beneficial. I’ve recently curated a 30-artist gallery for Your Daily Photograph sponsored by the Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles, and some of these artists I discovered through awards.

Judge and Entrant

Judith Crispin, who is a photographer, poet and one of the judges of this year’s Maggie Diaz prize shares her thoughts on being both judge and entrant. “Artists often work in isolation – for every hour spent on the street with a camera, there are three hours in the darkroom or studio that follow. It’s easy to feel isolated. Awards are a way of strengthening a feeling of community in the photography world. As a judge you get a rare chance to reach out to someone through all those layers of aloneness, and say ‘you know what? your work matters.’ That’s a special thing.”

“Entering competitions and prizes, as a photographer, also brings you into a community of peers. Even if you’re not shortlisted, you know your work is being seen, your name is getting out there. And if you follow the competitions you get to learn the names of others working in the field. It’s a bit like Japanese lanterns floating on a river at night – we’re all in our own spaces, but in these kind of events we begin to see each other”.

Awards versus books

The focal point of the recent debate on Facebook was awards versus publishing a high-end photography book; two very different propositions. The latter is something, in my opinion, that comes after you’ve established your body of work and know it is something others want to engage in (read: part with their money).

These high-end books are not cheap to produce or to buy. Often publishers expect the photographer to come up with thousands of dollars to meet production costs. If you’re going to invest that kind of money and put an $80+ price tag on a book, then you want to be sure you have an audience. You need confidence too that your publisher has the distribution network and the marketing savvy to get it out there. Publishing a book can be as much of a crapshoot as entering awards and far more costly.

A lot of photography books come across my desk for review and some quite frankly are a waste of paper and ink. A book should be viewed as the crowning glory for your body of work that has been shown in exhibitions, perhaps reviewed by a critic or two, and viewed in photography awards forums.

A high-end book is not usually a first step. I bought an amazing handmade photography book recently, a limited edition of 95, but that book was the culmination of years of work, exhibitions and a thesis! It was a work of art in itself, a book worth writing about, a treasure to own.

Successful photographers take a multimodal approach to getting their work seen – there is a place in a photographer’s career for awards and books, it is not an either or situation, and both work to elevate the individual artist and the genre as a whole. Entering awards should be seen as an investment in your professional practice as you work towards that gorgeous high-end photography book.

Photography awards can be an important part of what you do. Be selective, do your research, find out who is behind the awards, see who else is entering, and what is being offered (if it’s instant international fame, then move on). Understand what you want out of the experience of entering an award, and put your ego in the bottom draw.

You might not win, but getting your work out there, having fresh eyes on it and knowing you are not alone, but are part of this amazing creative hive, is invaluable.

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