The messy truth: Is it worth entering industry awards?
Experienced as anything from career-defining moments to exploitive scams, industry awards are incredibly divisive. Getting your work out there is a vital part of the creative process, so in theory, awards are an excellent method of exposure – but are they still meaningful? Photography director Gem Fletcher lays out the awards landscape, particularly with photographers in mind, and offers advice that will be relevant to applicants across all creative disciplines.
On the surface, awards are great. They conjure acclaim, a regarded reputation and align work with the idea of quality. The creative process can be a very isolating one, as we all sweat, stress and create behind closed doors. This, coupled with the hyper-saturated marketplace, means we have to push harder to be seen and valued. So who wouldn’t want to be patted on the back and have all that hard work validated by an award?
In the last decade, we’ve seen an enormous shift. The internet has transformed the industry in ways we are still discovering. It’s democratised creativity, giving everyone a platform to share work. Social media has removed industry gatekeepers and offered us a unique opportunity to build a dedicated, global audience, reaching thousands of fans with a single post. So where does this evolution leave the traditional award system?
The benefits of awards
Winning awards can offer a multitude of benefits, from confidence and exposure to tangible prizes like grants, mentoring and portfolio reviews. Great awards can provide a transformational level of exposure, which can be helpful if you want doors to open and new opportunities for your work. And for the lucky few who win big, their whole career trajectory can change overnight.
Alys Tomlinson has been working as a photographer for well over a decade, doing her own thing without proactively marketing herself. In 2018, She was named Photographer of the Year at the Sony World Photography Awards, picking up a colossal $25,000 prize and was thrust into a media circus that only a mega brand like Sony could manifest. “The Sony award changed my life,” she says. “It gave me a platform for global exposure, accelerating my career. I now have gallery representation, a publisher and a string of exhibition opportunities. The level of exposure was huge, and at times, overwhelming. I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s changed the direction of my career for the foreseeable future.”
Do awards translate into paid work?
The consensus on this is no. While awards can get you seen, winning them doesn’t often correlate with increased paid opportunities. As a commissioner, I don’t pay attention to the awards a photographer has won when making decisions about assignments. My priority is always authorship and the quality of the work.
This is a sentiment also echoed by Mimi Gray, M&C Saatchi’s head of visual content. “No, not at all”, she replies when I asked her if she considers a photographer’s award record when hiring. Fiona Shields, head of photography at The Guardian, agrees: “I wouldn’t deny a photographer a commission simply because they weren’t listed as ‘award-winning’.”
Not all awards are created equal
However, there is definitely such a thing as a bad award. We’ve all heard of awards not delivering on the prizes they advertised, or examples with so many categories that the sheer volume of winners means that no one is actually seen and celebrated.
In recent years, the commercialisation of awards by brands and editorial platforms has made the messy business of navigating the awards landscape even more challenging. These awards offer new revenue streams for struggling publications or brands seeking to exploit the vulnerable creative ego under the guise of ‘giving back’. Look out for their aggressive email strategy and some even resort to cold-calling. Be warned, any award that desperate for you to enter has alternative motives.
“If I respect the jury and they’ve had strong winners in the past, then that’s my focus.” – Alys Tomlinson
The biggest issue with awards is the financial barrier to entry, ruling out the opportunity for many applicants. Alys Tomlinson adds, “I feel mixed about awards in general. I think in lots of ways they’re very unfair. I have a problem with competitions which cost £60 or more to enter, where there’s also very little in terms of the actual prize available. There are some competitions I wouldn’t enter because I don’t think the work in them is particularly credible or strong, and they’re just a money-making machine. If I respect the jury and they’ve had strong winners in the past, then that’s my focus.”
What about if you don’t win?
Alice Mann has had varying degrees of success with award and grant entries over the last five years. Overall she has found the process of entering integral to the development of her practice. “I think there are a lot of benefits aside from winning,” she says. “Photography isn’t just about taking pictures; entering pushes you to critically write about your work, presenting what you are doing to people who don’t know anything about it. Even if a work is still developing, this is helpful, and it can often influence your approach going forward.
“There are so many factors that might influence the outcome of an award that you don’t have control over, so for me it’s more about seeing what you can take out of it. If an editor or curator you love might see your work, that’s a result. I’ve had people contact me about other opportunities when I didn’t even place. I feel that to be on the radar of the industry professionals whose work and approach I respect is a win!”
How can you give yourself an edge with your entries?
Carving your own strategy with awards is fundamental. It’s important to carefully consider the what, why, who and when factors, ensuring the values of the prize align with the work you are creating.
Alexander Coggin picked up Best in Book in the recent Creative Review Photo Annual. He shares his approach: “I submit sporadically – when I know I have a good body of work to show. I always check out the judges, the past winners, the ‘reach’ of the award and the entry fee and make a decision. Do your research. It can be expensive and sometimes I don’t see myself in the award, so I’ll skip it.”
“Only enter work that has a real purpose or point of view.” – Mimi Gray
Alice Mann adds, “It’s about being organised and consistent with your approach, and there are real benefits in taking the time to do it. Every month I have websites I check that list various awards, and I pick the ones that I think are appropriate for me and put them into a calendar. It can be very time consuming, but I find the more you do it, the easier it becomes.”
Mimi Gray encourages people to only enter work that has a purpose or point of view. “Think about what are you offering to this subject that no one else can, why is it your story to tell,” she advises. “If you can’t answer these questions, then you may want to rethink your entry. Common mistakes I see include beautiful work, which is not on-brief – don’t ignore the judging criteria! If you have something new to say, then it doesn’t matter if the subject has been shot a thousand times before. You have the opportunity to make a jury rethink a subject, and that’s gold.”
Things to consider before you enter
Once you’ve identified a trustworthy award, armed with your entry, here are some steps I highly recommend considering, to make every entry count:
Know your motivation
Think critically about what you want to get out of entering. Exposure? Prize money? Mentoring? Are you looking to break into a new market and therefore should consider a regional award? All these factors will inform your awards wish list.
Don’t enter for the sake of it. We all have off years, or years where we’ve focused on making work to pay the bills rather than satisfy creative desires. Be honest with yourself. If that’s the case, save your money and time and skip a year.
Remember, if you’re looking for more commercial opportunities, then perhaps your time and money could be better spent on creating a new body of work or a piece of engaging marketing to engage new clients.
I recommend focusing on no more than five awards every year. And the best ones to go for are the ones best suited to the needs of your practice. For photographers, here are my recommendations: if you shoot editorial, then the World Press Photo is key; if you’re developing a fine art practice, then look at the Foam Talent Award; if you’re new and emerging then the PDN 30 is a great place to start. The Sony World Photography Award is a great all rounder, and it’s free to enter.
Awards are nuanced and play to particular themes, aesthetics and genres. Understanding these subtle nuances is half the battle. Take the time to research awards you are considering entering. Carefully review the entry criteria, look at previous winners – is there anyone you would love to get your work in front of on the judging panel? Does your work fit with the overall ethos of the award? Look at prizes – are they tangible? And how could they support your work going forward?
“We all have off years, or years where we’ve focused on making work to pay the bills rather than satisfy creative desires.”
Tap the community
Knowledge is power. Speak to fellow creatives, especially individuals who have won the award in the past. Quiz them on their experience – did they feel like the award delivered on the prizes advertised? And what other tangible benefits came with winning?
Think critically about your entry
It’s crucial to think critically about what you enter and how you present the work. Keep your edits tight and the quality consistent. Photographers are often too close to the work and struggle to see the work objectively. If that sounds like you, find a trusted picture editor who can help.
The words are just as important as the images; they provide judges with a deeper understanding of the entry, providing crucial context that can often elevate an entry.
If you need to supply a bio, overview and captions as part, be sure to take the time to do this well. If you’re not a confident writer, make sure you get someone to proof it. Tools like Grammarly can help capture any rogue typos and punctuation errors.
Read the small print
Awards can have stricter criteria than appears on first glance. A common pitfall is entering work created outside of the required time period. Don't bother trying to enter old work; you will be found out.
Also, be vigilant about the usage rights you are giving to organisations when entering awards. It’s critical you understand how they can use your work outside the competition to avoid nasty surprises later down the line.
Make the most of every opportunity
If you do win, then make the most out of it. Seek out relevant judges for a portfolio review, or a chance to show them your book. Ask them for advice and see if there are any mentoring opportunities.
Don’t forget to share the news with your fans, followers, clients and your agent if you have one. The more you can amplify the work the better.
And finally, good luck!
Written by Gem Fletcher
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