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|| News Item: Posted 2003-04-29

The Value of Contests
It's All About EGO

By Vincent Laforet, The New York Times

(Editor's Note: Every year about this time, we have some sort of controversy involving one of Three Initial Contests. For second consecutive year, the "Best of Photojournalism" contest chose not to award anything in the Sports Photographer of the Year category. This has, for good or bad, become fodder for debate and comment in various parts of the photographic community. Sports Shooter has asked several photographers for their opinions on the relevance and importance of photography contests.)

Perhaps my chooch mentor Jonathan Daniel put it best in an e-mail he sent me in response to one of the Message Board threads.

Contests are about three little letters:


That's right, when you really think about it, there are only two outcomes when entering a contest: a bruised ego or a pumped up ego.

We all mumble words under our breath when the judges fail to single out our brilliant photographic masterpieces from that year. Do I really suck that bad, we ask?

We all imagine a ticker-taped parade down Broadway when we place in the almighty Sports Shooter Contest --- let alone one of the ominous two or three letter competitions! Maybe we'll magically get better positions at tomorrow's hockey games, we say, maybe my colleagues will shudder when I walk past them tonight! Yeah.

Well, I'm sorry to say the most I've ever gotten from winning a competition is a serious hard time from my colleagues and at best, a nice check or some camera gear.

But I do understand that we all have different reasons for entering these masochistic games of Russian roulette.

When our staff won two Pulitzers last year - we suddenly, almost overnight, had more weight in the newsroom. And that alone is a good justification for entering competitions.

We all know that we do good work or bad work every year and a few of our colleagues will recognize that. But awards are printed in black & white - they're there to stay. An award is a certificate, or proof, to your visually challenged colleagues that says "Hey - this schmuck does good work!" I think it's safe to say that ultimately, the people you should care about will judge you by the quality of your work or portfolio. Your resume, with a list of awards on it, will be shown to their superiors or peers who have limited knowledge of photography, to prove to them that you most likely know what you're doing.

It's easier for example to say: "I'd like to hire this Sports Shooter Photographer of the Year," than to have someone who ultimately doesn't know a good photo from his happy-snaps, sit down and go through your portfolio one picture at a time. Nuf said about that.

On a more personal note: Why do I enter? I debate entering every year It's such a pain in the butt to put those entries together. And I ask myself: "What do I really stand to gain with this award?"

I don't really have a good answer really. But my boss asks our staff to enter so I do (because when we win anything - they send an e-mail out throughout the newsroom that reminds everyone that the photography staff is doing "exceptional work":)

But like we all say, it takes GREAT discipline to look at your work from that year and see that: a) you're getting better or b) you really need to take some time away from the sports shooter forums and work a little more on your interpersonal skills with your subjects.

I can also tell you that when I won my first "portfolio of the year" - it meant a lot. But only for about 12 hours. What it told me - simply - was that I was on the right track. Nothing more. Because the next assignment you go to, no one knows you're regional POY and nobody, rightfully cares. Hopefully you're just trying to make the best photograph of that person - because you love what you do and want to do them justice.

And Lastly - I've been to a number of judgings and I've personally judged a half dozen competitions. I've got a few simple observations to share with you:

1. They're incredibly random. Too many pix. Too little time. And the judges themselves come from varying background with wildly different interpretations of what a good photograph is.

2. If you place in the top 5 - congrats! There is rarely a good reason why one is 1st and another is in 3rd - usually judges barter when it comes to the final places because we all have different opinions - even amongst the three judges.

3. Don't enter stuff you see all the time - they get blended in with everything else. Judges are looking through THOUSANDS of images. Unique images will stand out and win every time. Subtle pictures have to be so powerful (and you need to hope for observant judges too!) to ever make it. But enter those too.

4. In portfolios - edit tight. PERIOD. I can't emphasize enough how in portfolio and stories you get down to the top 6 and you cut them down based on the weakest images - because they're all good after all. There is seldom an obvious winner (it may be obvious to you - but the other judges more often than not see it completely differently and the only way to make a point is to single out weak images…)

5. Keep entering. Have fun. DON'T TAKE 'em too seriously and don't keep checking the result page everyday - you'll never win that way.
My general rule: you'll never win when you expect to win or really want to win.

6. Finally, if you're still convinced you were robbed: Sometime the judges REALLY DO suck.

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer with the New York Times. He shared the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography in 2002.)

Related Links:
Laforet's member page

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