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|| News Item: Posted 2003-04-29

Valuable Tool for Shaping a Career
By Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News

I work for a relatively small group of papers with a circulation of about 150,000. (The Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News in Southern California.) In the past 11 years, I have been fortunate enough to cover events such as the World Series, Super Bowl, NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs. But, for the most part, our daily assignments are local community assignments, high school sports, 100th birthday parties, soapbox derby, the business building mug, city council ... well, you get the picture.

Photo by Keith Birmingham / Pasadena Star-News

Photo by Keith Birmingham / Pasadena Star-News

This picture won Picture of the Year in the 2002 Sports Shooter annual contest.
I am a paying member of four professional organizations, National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), California Press Photographers Association (CPPA) and Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles (PPAGLA). I enter my photographs in each of these monthly and yearly clip contests, along with POYi and a few others. The newspaper does not pay for my dues or printing supplies (ribbon, photo paper, FedEx), nor do they provide me company time to work on entering contests. The company does not keep track or even ask staff members about contest results. Our photo editors don't push us to enter contests, and even when they do hear that we have won a contest, there are no announcements to the newsroom, no pat on the back, and, of course, no raises or promotions.

So you might ask why I continue to enter my photographs in these contests, despite the lack of support from my newspaper.

I grew up playing sports year round, baseball, football and basketball. I always loved the competition, the rivalry and the camaraderie that comes with it. In fact, I loved the practice more than I ever loved actually playing the games because it gave us a chance to compete one-on-one with each other, whether it was who could drive the most homeruns over the opposite field fence or run the bases faster, tackle the hardest or hit the most free-throws. It was just fun to compete.

Photojournalism gives me that same feeling, and contests, like sports, is so much fun to work on, win or lose. Now, I love to win and, of course, I hate to lose. I have lost many more contests than I've ever won, but I have met friends who I would have never met if it weren't for the contest banquets and get-togethers that coincide with them.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / AP

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / AP

This picture lost out to Birmingham's in the 2002 Sports Shooter annual contest.
Contests have been an invaluable tool in the shaping of my career as a photographer. I have learned to improve my work through looking at many contests over the years, from the old Forrest Lawn contest, NPPA, PPAGLA and now I can't tell you how many old contest annuals along with books by Leifer and Capa, and, of course, magazines like SI and National Geographic, and the late Herald Examiner sports page that I have looked through over the years.

The New York Times Vincent Laforet asked: "Would you still pursue this profession with the same vigor without contests?" Yes, I love photojournalism. I am not driven by contests, but by the feeling of making an impact in the community on a daily basis.

Would I still get that rush or disappointment without the contests?


Everyone has had that feeling of coming back into the photo department knowing you captured the photo that really told the story of the day. And of course, there is the feeling that you just didn't have it that day, too. At those moments, you aren't thinking about winning or losing a contest. You're thinking about what your readers are going to see in the newspaper the next day, and whether your photograph has captured the essence of the story. It all comes down to you, and you are either proud or disappointed in the work you've done that day.

Some years ago, I received a letter from a woman whose father I had photographed for a story about him finally receiving a Purple Heart for service during World War II. He past away soon after receiving his Purple Heart, and this woman just wanted to thank me for the portrait. In her letter, she told me how much it meant to the family that her father, who never liked to be photographed, loved that image with his old uniform and medal on his chest. That letter, along with the feeling that my photograph positively affected an entire family, meant just as much to me as any award I have ever won.

So, you see contests are fun and valuable as long as you keep them in perspective. You might win today and lose tomorrow. AP photographer Mark Terrill and I watched our photo of San Francisco Giants Reggie Sanders on his head receive third and fourth place in one contest, not win anything in another and then go to the wire for Picture of the Year. It was fun, but it was completely subjective, with different judges and different results.

I will continue to enter contests, and have fun doing so. I'll keep the certificates, plaques and awards that recognize some of my efforts, but right along side will be the letters from faceless people who's lives have been impacted by my work.

(Keith Birmingham is a staff photographer at the Pasadena Star-News. He recently won the Sports Shooter Annual Contest Photo of the Year.)

Related Links:
Birmingham's member page

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