Don't Let Competition Hold Your Photography Back

Don't Let Competition Hold Your Photography Back

Would you judge a photography competition? Do you compete with other photographers? Although competition is accepted in photography, it has significant drawbacks that prevent you from succeeding.

Competition is generally considered standard practice in photography. It seems an innocuous way of encouraging people to improve. Indeed, competitions are popular, and the idea of them fits in with the relatively modern Western concept of how the world should be run. If we compete, it is because we want to .get better and achieve more. However, the evidence is that there are better ways forward. Sociological and evolutionary theories are changing the way we think about competition.

The Curse Competition in Everyday Modern Life

We are used to competition. In the workplace, studio employees compete for bonuses and promotions. If we are asked to do photography work for another business, we say we "won" a contract. The idea of competition is that there can be only one winner. This fits in with the belief held until recently, resulting from evolutionary science, that assumes everything competes for resources.

But now we know that is not so.

Nature Cooperates More than it Competes

Many creatures and plants cooperate to thrive. This can be seen in the multi-species associations of herds of animals on the savannahs of Africa. Sea creatures of different species group together both for mutual protection from predation and to hunt. It happens within plants too. A recent discovery has shown that fungal network threads spread between the roots of trees in a forest. These threads link to multiple plants, creating webs known as "common mycorrhizal networks." Plants use these networks to exchange sugars, nutrients, and water and warn each other about predators and infections. Gardeners now know that certain plants thrive better when planted close to other specific species.

Trees in a forest don't compete, they cooperate.

Humanity succeeded because of its ability to cooperate and form teams. Societies work best and are most productive when they pull together as opposed to factions competing and trying to win and, thus, make their opposition lose. When people have used competition to place their race or religion ahead of others, it has always ended in misery. It's a sad truth that in politics, those who are best at competing and winning elections are not necessarily the best at serving those that elected them. Instead, they continue to compete to secure their position at any cost. On the international stage, competition at its worst results in war.

For Most People, Competition Means Losing, and That's Bad News

Competition is about winning. Which, of course, means it's also about losing. Although one person wins, most lose and suffer the ill effects. Losing has both psychological and physical impacts. Besides the hurt caused to one's ego, losing raises blood pressure, elevates stress hormones, and causes reductions of dopamine and testosterone. It also leads to exaggerated negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. Of course, there are ways to deal with that, and sportspeople employ performance psychologists to cope with losing. But most of us are not fortunate enough to have access to such help.

So, given the adverse effects, why on earth would you want to compete in photography?

Apart from the above arguments in favor of cooperation over competition, photography, more than any other art form, is not suited to it. That is down to how photos are judged.

Birds cooperate in flocks just as the owners of these boats do.

Why AI Can Win Photo Competitions

A photograph comprises many different aspects that are judged in competitions. There are the camera skills of the photographer. Then there is the application of the principles of design. That means the photographer decides how to emphasize the subject, use proportions, balance the photo, contrast elements, use repetition, show movement, and employ positive and negative space. Additionally, there is the use of color and tone, plus the choice of subject matter. It is possible to judge these. However, taking photos solely based on these parameters is sausage machine photography. That is why AI can produce realistic-looking images. Each of those factors can be mathematically formulated and reproduced by an algorithm.

Furthermore, if competitors take photographs to meet the ideals of a judge, it leaves little scope for experimentation and invention.

Why AI Shouldn't be Able to Win Photo Competitions

But an overriding factor makes a photo work that cannot be reproduced by a machine and cannot be judged. It's art.

The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
The Oxford English Dictionary

Art is a product (e.g., a photograph, sculpture, writing, painting, etc.) or an activity (e.g., dance, musical performance, acting, etc.) done by humans with a reason to communicate a message and/or for an aesthetic purpose. Art is a created demonstration of an idea, an emotion, or an opinion. It is influenced by and part of the artist's culture, environment, and socioeconomic situation.

There are personal stories photographers tell in their work. That is problematic in a competition because the judge may not have the ability to understand the story that the photographer is telling. They may completely misunderstand it, either applying a meaning that wasn't in the photographer's mind or failing to see the photographer's intention. The feeling the judge gets from the photo is unique to their experience, so they have no concept of the photographer's feelings when they shot it. Similarly, machine-produced photos cannot create art, only imitate it because they have no emotions, culture, environment, or society.

Why Humans Shouldn't Judge Photos

Just like every other art form, if you look at photography from different parts of the world, different ethnic groups within a country, or even different towns, you will find vast differences. Open a new tab on your browser now and do a Google Images searches for Japanese, Brazilian, French, and Namibian photography. You will see stark variances in dominant styles.

Even at a local level, the experiences of every person are unique, and those will be reflected in their work. Others won't fully understand the artist's personal experiences, emotions, and opinions because their life experiences are also unique.

So, how can one ever judge art, the most critical aspect of a photograph? To do so relies entirely on the judge's biased subjectivity and is therefore invalid.

Furthermore, if we are going to judge, ask yourself how you would choose between Ansel Adams and Takashi Mizukoshi, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, Annie Leibovitz and Nadav Kander, or Vivian Maier and Diane Arbus. The idea that one photographer or photograph can be better than another seems preposterous when we look at these.

There Are Good and the Bad Judges

We should also consider the motivation of those doing the judging. The best judges will do everything to encourage every participant. They will accept a diversity of styles and realize that what appeals to them most might not be the winner.

However, some poor judges use their position as a power trip. I've met people, including children, who have been put off photography by cruel comments by judges. I've also seen a photographer whose work was continuously marked down in club competitions because the judge saw them competing for their position as the "best in the club."

The judge might not understand the photographer's intentions

Competitiveness Outside Competitions Doesn't Work Either

When I say competition, I am not just referring to choosing a winner in a club gallery or website challenge. It also happens in the commercial world, inhibiting some photographers from developing. For example, I mentioned earlier about Googling images from Namibia. Do the same for any African or Caribbean country, and there is a bias toward photographers who are not native to that land. Competition has resulted in photographic colonialism when it comes to shooting images in developing countries. Those who live in and are most familiar with that world are denied the exposure to tell their own stories by outsiders who dominate.

In society, socioeconomic factors also act as a barrier to success. Although the photographer is more important than the kit they use, the sad truth is that advanced cameras and, more so, high-quality lenses give the photographer an edge over those with a basic camera with a cheap kit lens. Consequently, although not an absolute truth in every circumstance, if you come from an affluent background, you are far more likely to achieve success than someone living close to the poverty line. That is sad because the latter group probably has some fascinating photographic tales to tell. That is a generalization; Tish Murther, for example, broke free from the constraints of her lowly beginnings, but thanks to the help and support of others and not through competition.

Cooperation not competition

It's Hard Work and Cooperation That Wins

Recently, I've heard two stories showing that determination and cooperation and not competition led to success. The first was on a BBC Radio program that has been running for eighty years called Desert Island Discs. On the program, Steven Spielberg was interviewed and told how, at a very young age, he was self-driven and supported by others to succeed in his career. The other is the TV program from Disney+ called Light and Magic. It told the story of a group of creative misfits that worked together to form the team that made the groundbreaking special effects for Star Wars and became Industrial Light and Magic.

When you read the stories of most great photographers, they didn't achieve greatness through competition. Although there are a few exceptions, they go there through hard work and determination, and almost always with the support of others.

Not everyone will agree with my point of view. Many believe in the culture of competition in all walks of life. If you do, then it would be great to hear your counterarguments about why you think it is so. Or are persuaded by my challenge to the commonly held belief that competition is the best motivator?

I thank Fstoppers reader and contributor David Pavlich, a supporter of photography competitions, for our brief conversation that inspired me to write this.

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6 Comments
Joe Lenton's picture

Thought-provoking stuff Ivor Rackham. It can be similar with photography qualifications - it is always going to be a particular sub-culture's standards that are used to accept or deny entry into that group. The question then becomes, do we really want to belong to that particular group? If we do, then we might need to play along, at least to an extent. We all like to be accepted by others, so it is unlikely that we will plough our own furrow with no reference to any community at all as we would risk being complete outsiders. I've met many photographers who are so keen to belong to a community that they sacrifice their personal style as an artist

Ivor Rackham's picture

That is an fascinating comment and I think you are absolutely right. I am going to ponder on that. Thank you.

Tom Reichner's picture

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I don't see this as an either / or thing. I believe that cooperation and competition are both necessary. And they can co-exist.

An example of cooperation and competition co-existing is seen in NFL football. Teammates cooperate and work together to function as a unit, with strategies implemented to maximize each player's strengths, while having their teammates cover for their weaknesses. Teammates practice together, eat together, work out together, and become great friends off the field and away from the team facility. Yet when a game is played, one team competes fiercely against another team, and out of the 32 teams, only one of them can win the Super Bowl.

I also see cooperation and competition co-existing in nature. The wolves within a pack for very tight bonds with one another, and work together for the good of the pack. Only one pair of wolves in the pack breed and produce offspring, yet all of the pack members work together toward the success of that reproduction. Yet one wolf pack will compete fiercely against another wolf pack. Epic battles take place as one pack will try to force another pack out of its territory. Every pack wants to claim and hold as much prime territory as it can, and will drive other packs out and even fight to the death in order to get more land for themselves. Wolves will also chase down a Coyote and kill it if they can, because they see a Coyote as a competitor for food.

If you remove cooperation, the world will go to hell rapidly. And if you remove competition, the world will go to hell in a hurry. We need both, and I see a place for both in photography.

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Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, Tom. I agree there needs to be some balance. For the last century, the pendulum has swung toward competing, not just in photography, and the world has indeed gone to hell in a lot of places.

Peter Berzanskis's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, judging photography can be problematic and you provided some great examples to back it up, Vivian Maier vs Diane Arbus for example. If I can use your analogy of cooperation and how it relates to photo competitions. Most or many photographers, especially those who are creating work for their own enjoyment work in isolation. Friends and family might enjoy and comment on the work and support the photographer but photographers rarely interact with a wider community of photographers. Competitions are one of the few ways that their work is validated. Even if they don't win they're probably scanning closely the images that did win and, consciously or not, broadening or deepening their own knowledge. Competitions may also motive photographers to create work or help them to define their work. Maybe they're not entering to win so much, but to be recognised. In a way, competitions ARE about cooperation. It's the organisers of competitions who give the oxygen that allows photographers grow, to shine a light on their work allowing them to come out from the shadows.

Jenny-Anne Jett's picture

I felt a bit discouraged by this because ‘cooperation’ as in having networks & contacts & a posse you went through art school with etc works for those people but at the exclusion of others, it’s very hard to get your work seen if eg you start later in life (you’re literally ‘emerging’ but not counted as ‘emerging’ because you’re over 25), or you’re not part of the right circles for whatever reason. Competitions are at least a way to get your work onto someone’s screen, & maybe even some more people if you get shortlisted. And like Peter said, the act of entering can make you open to what other artists are doing (including artists whose work you might never have seen otherwise, as you talked about with different cultures), & help you understand your own work better, or even just spur you to produce something. A competition may be the only photographic community someone is part of. I’ve also discovered some new favourite artists from seeing their competition entries then going over to check out their Instagrams.