Are Photography Contests & Competitions Worth It?

“Pyrotechnic #15”, Copyright Jim Nickelson

One question that I frequently receive, and one that I grapple with myself at times, is whether all of these juried photography contests and competitions are worth it. I feel a particular obligation to address this issue since I write my popular monthly post summarizing interesting calls for entries (with a new one coming this week!) and since many people are acting upon my suggestions and entering these contests.

So the question remains – are they worth it? Is it worth the time, expense, mental energy, and possible angst to bother with these? My answer is a conditional yes, assuming you are someone who wishes to eventually exhibit your work in galleries or even museums, and/or if you hope to make your photography your career.

To flesh that out a bit, let’s talk about the possible benefits of entering (and winning) these competitions. First and foremost, the potential benefit of these competitions is that ever-elusive “exposure”. Whether it be exposure to a particular juror, or whether it be exposure to whatever audience will view the winning entries either online or in person, exposure to someone who will benefit you and your career seems to be the primary motivation for most people to enter these competitions. We’ve all heard of people who were “discovered” by some gallery owner in one of these competitions and that discovery then led to an exhibition, representation, and so on. This discovery does indeed happen and that possibility is reason enough for some to enter competitions, but be warned that it is not particularly common for major results to occur from a particular juried exhibition. All that being said, while the chances may be relatively low, they are better than if you don’t enter competitions at all.

Another benefit of entering juried competitions is building up your artistic resume. Why bother? Because establishing a history of exhibiting will help convince gallery owners, collectors, and the like that you are serious about your work and that you have credibility as an artist. I’m not saying that your work doesn’t have credibility if you don’t exhibit, just that some people will give more credence to it if you have. It may not be fair, but human nature is what it is, and having a long string of exhibitions to your name will help establish your seriousness as an artist. I think that if I were a gallery owner looking at bringing someone in for representation, an exhibition history would help convince me that the artist took their work seriously and that they would work hard themselves at marketing and such.

“Pyrotechnic #19”, Copyright Jim Nickelson

I’ve also found that for me personally, the process of selecting work to submit is a valuable exercise in editing, and the feedback on which images are selected may be useful information as well. For many there is also a psychological benefit or a sense of validation in being accepted into a juried exhibition — a confirmation that someone out there thinks your work is good. (And, as I’ve noted previously, don’t take it too personally those times you don’t get accepted – it is all extremely subjective).

Based on these factors, I’ve decided for myself that, at this point, entering select juried competitions is worthwhile for my artistic practice and career. My previous careers were not related to art and I felt that I needed to establish an exhibition history to help rectify my lack of formal artistic education. Was I correct in that? I believe so, but who knows? We can never be sure what would have happened if we had chosen a different path. I do feel that for many artists, the juried exhibition path at the beginning of your career can help in establishing credibility and increasing the chances of landing a gallery. In a world awash with aspiring photographers, you never know what is going to help out.

Just because this path is the one that I and others have chosen, however, does not mean it is the path for everyone. If you hate the idea of juried competitions or don’t have the time, treasure, or energy to enter them, don’t do it. There are other paths to get wherever you’d like to go. Maybe you will be successful in approaching galleries directly, maybe you can attend portfolio reviews, maybe you will open your own gallery, maybe the fates will conspire to have a gallery show fall in your lap. It’s worked for others before you. Go for it and don’t look back.

People have succeeded with all of these different paths, so find the one that makes the most sense to you and your situation. I think that juried competitions can help many in increasing their odds of success (however you define that), but they certainly won’t ensure success by themselves, either.

Please comment below if you’ve had any successes or frustrations with these competitions that you’d like to share!

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4 thoughts on “Are Photography Contests & Competitions Worth It?”

  1. Well said, Jim. As a dealer and the only photographs dealer in Maine, I would like to confirm that a list of exhibitions is indeed an indicator that an artist supports their work and wants to get it “out there” – it helps a dealer and prospective client get a sense they are serious artists. However, my sense is an artist who is building recognition for their work should enter 4-6 hand-picked competitions annually, and attend at least one portfolio review. Other efforts to tie in with this package would be to connect with a curator every six months – here in Maine, or elsewhere in New England – there are plenty who would respond to a professional request to review your work and comment on it. But please…be thick-skinned as Jim says. Competitions ARE subjective. And when you make an appt. with a curator, clearly state you want their honest input and feedback and that a pat on the back is not overly helpful. So – it’s a combination of ways to get your work out there that makes a difference.

    1. Heather, thank you for the valuable information from the perspective of the dealer! Honest feedback is vital and you usually don’t get any sort of detailed feedback with these juried competitions, so Heather’s suggestions for other ways of getting that are particularly important.

  2. Thanks Jim- well said. I just recently met with Bob Moran who was explaining the same thing and lauding the value of portfolio reviews, so I know I gotta get hip. And Heather’s comment was invaluable as well. Hope to “hang” with you someday Jim 🙂 -cheeky, I know. -Nate.

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