Contest Mania
January 2009

by Joshua Wolfe

World Press Photo, Photo District News' Photo Annual, POYi, NPPA's Best of Photojournalism, American Photography 25, White House New Photographers Association's "The Eyes of History 2009," Santa Fe Project/Singular Image Competition, SportsShooter Annual Contest, Magenta Foundation Flash Forward, Art Director's Club Annual Awards – all have deadlines in January and February.

This is a column about failure. The photo industry's failure to provide enough outlets for young and emerging photographers to promote themselves, contests' failure to keep their value to the industry high, and my personal failure to put a value on entering said contests.

First, my failure. A month a half ago I decided to run a cost-benefit analysis on entering the dozen or so end-of-the-year photography contests (this excludes another dozen or two that have deadlines between March and December). I asked the contests for some basic information: number of entrants total and by category, number of winners, was the judging blind, entry fees, and financial rewards. Some responded, some didn't but it was enough to make some assumptions as to the likelihood of winning. It wasn't perfect but one could make some inferences as to the chances of winning.

As an example, World Press Photo received 80,536 images from 5,019 photographers last year for only 63 awards. American Photography received 8,927 images from 1,200 photographers and they choose 562 images. You have a little over a 1 in 2 chance of having an image selected by American Photography, compared to a 1 in 40 chance with World Press Photo. On the other hand, it costs $35 per image to enter American Photography and they charge an additional $95 to be published in the book and $45 for a copy of the book. If you entered four images and one was selected you would end up spending $280. On the other hand, it is free to enter World Press Photo and even if you don't win you get a copy of the book. So from a purely financial perspective it is a no-brainer to me to enter World Press Photo but I have to think about American Photography which I have better odds of winning.

That, however, led to a second question: how much was winning truly worth? As photographers we enter contests for a number of reasons but the bottom line is that it is a means of promotion. If it costs $295 to enter one image in all of the contests, are you better off buying an ad on this site? At least here, you are guaranteed to have people in the industry view the image. On the other hand, winning can mean a number of things. For the young photographer it raises their profile, for the veteran it proves to their clients they can still compete and for the mid-career photographer it helps elevate them to the next level.

My failure was to place a numerical value on winning any one of the contests. As photographers we need recognition to advance our careers but I cannot say what the recognition is worth because there are too many variables. Each contest at one point or another has launched or elevated a photographer's career. Some do it annually, some rarely, but there is no concrete value to a victory, except the handful that gives concrete prizes.

A different problem also cropped up during my research. In the last couple of years, the number of photography competitions has exploded. Some of this has to do with the fact the number of young and emerging photographers has exploded. With more photographers trying to make their mark, the number of entries is up. A total of 846 more photographers entered World Press Photo in 2008 than in 2004. Photo contest fees are great sources of revenue. The more photographers that enter the competitions the more profitable they become. But when will they reach the point that photographers start to rebel? Should we all agree to only enter a handful?

Personally, I am still going to enter about half of the contests listed above. I am conflicted about this decision because I want to make a stand on some of the contests; on the other hand, I need the recognition to advance my career. This is one of those bad situations that is hard for people in the industry to navigate. Photographers need awards to promote themselves, but as an industry we need to lay down some ground rules about what is acceptable in contests. The starting point should be that we shouldn't enter the contests that simply exploit photographers. More importantly, photo editors who judge the contests shouldn't lend their name to a contest that has exploitative terms. I'm not optimistic about the situation being resolved any time soon but a good start would be a general discussion about what constitutes exploitation of photographers. If we can resolve that issue we should be able to chart out a resolution that benefits both the institutions holding the contests and the photographers entering them. All this said, it is time for me to start preparing my entries.

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© Joshua Wolfe

Joshua Wolfe is a documentary and editorial photographer who splits his time between NYC and Washington, D.C. At 25, he is the youngest member of GHG Photos, a new picture agency specializing in environment, nature and climate change, [], and has worked for a variety of magazines, advertising and educational clients. He has focused on climate change for the last several years and is the co-author of "Climate Change: Picturing the Science," being published by WW Norton & Co. in April 2009. Josh will serve as President of GHG Photos for the first year.

To learn more about Joshua, and GHG Photos, read our recent Q&A interview with him:, and his column last month, "Notes for Aspiring Photographers":