The blog of photographer Kim Ayres


I am constantly torn when it comes to photography competitions – should I enter or not?

There's only any point in entering a competition if there's a reasonable possibility of winning, especially if there is a submission fee involved – otherwise I may as well spend it on a lottery ticket.

I've won plenty of online photo competitions (although of course I've not won far more). I belong to a few different websites that have daily challenges, and once you're signed up you can enter as many as you like. Some even have real prizes – I'm still very much enjoying the use of my Manfrotto RedBee-210 backpack (see A Manfrotto Something).

But then there are the big ones, the highly prestigious well known ones, like the British Photography Awards, The International Photography Awards, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, or even the LensCulture Photography Awards, where winning can give you reasonably large chunks of money and 15 minutes of fame.

These are the ones where I become torn about entering – basically because I don't think I have a hope in hell of winning.

Oddly enough for someone operating in the creative industries, it's not because I doubt the quality of my photos or my skill. It's just the kind of photography I do, the kind I feel I excel at, the kind I'm most proud of, just doesn't fit the profile of typical winning images.

Individual portraits that make the short list are almost invariably made up of what I can only term as a "melancholic stillness", where the figure is static, and mostly where there is a sense of sadness or loss, and always a sense of "other."

The direct gaze, connection, and ownership of the space that I favour in my portraits is at complete odds with mood of those typical finalists.

And what about my staged-narrative-group shots, which have become something of a signature approach of mine? These are the ones that test me to the limits of not just photographic, but people-skills – managing several different sets of agendas, goals and personalities to achieve something everyone taking part can be delighted with.

But there's never really a proper category for these kinds of images. They do not really fall under "portraits," but nor are they "documentary." Perhaps loose categories such as "fine art" or "conceptual" but in these, again, they are looking for something else.

A final barrier is that these staged-narrative-group shots I so love to create require studying for more than half a second. It is only when you view them for that little bit longer do you start to see the layers of objects and meanings. However, when we have hundreds or thousands of images to look through, we start looking at high speed, and anything that has subtlety is missed.

Of course, all this sounds like sour grapes, and perhaps it is.

So why do I create photographs that no one else is doing? Why am I not doing landscapes, wildlife, or cute kittens?

Because I hate the competition!

I'm actually a really bad loser, and always have been.

So instead of competing with everyone else, I nearly always strike out on my own path where no one else is able to make me feel belittled.

Even with music, I started off playing the guitar, then switched to the mandolin after way too many incidents of testosterone-driven guitarists trying to outdo each other.

And then when I started attending folk sessions in Scottish pubs and discovered testosterone-driven mandolin players trying to outdo each other, I switched to playing the bouzouki.

Now there are a couple of other people who play the bouzouki in SW Scotland, although not many, and they are really good folk musicians.

So I started playing blues and rock with mine – putting it through a distortion box and using a bottle-neck slide – something I haven't seen anyone else do.

So is it any real surprise that I seriously hesitate to enter competitions?

But didn't I already say I've won plenty of online photo competitions?

Yes, but.

The reality is, I've learned how to play the online competition game. I know the kind of thing that wins and I enter those kinds of photos.

But they are not the kind of photos that I love doing and really want to be recognised for creating.

My most successful photo, by far – outstripping all others – is a swan in the mist.

I mean, it's a nice enough photo – minimalist, calm, perhaps slightly melancholic – but it's by no means my best work.

Or my second best performing photo in these competitions – the silhouetted tree against a sunset sky.

The success of these images isn't down to the skill of the photographer, it's because they are easy to consume.

You don't have to think about them. You don't have to look for layers of meaning. You don't have to explore the image to find little details you missed first time round but add extra depth once you find them.

OK, so why don't I enter these photos into the big prestigious photo competitions?

Because if I'm going to succeed in something that matters, something that might actually make a bit of a difference, something that might have people looking up my work, then I want it to be with the work I have lovingly created, not the quick and lucky snapshot where I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

What I would want to win with would be something like the photo I did for The Nail Factory in Dalbeattie that had 8 artists (and a baby), and was designed to echo many of the tropes used in a Dutch "Old Master's" painting, but that doesn't fit into any of the categories.

So after an evening of flipping back and forth over and over in my head about whether to fork out the cash and enter the British Photography Awards, I decided instead to write a blog post about why I hate these bloody competitions...


John Painter said...

Competition and art should never mix. I hate the idea of it and the effects of it. As a child and a teen there was always the question of who was the "best" drummer among my cohort. What does that even mean? The most advanced technically? The fastest? That isn't art, it's sport. Sport thrives on competition, art withers. And why, as an artist, should I attempt to tamp down the success of other artists? I'd rather embrace their successes and grow with them. To become an accomplished artist in the true sense of the word, you must reject competition with others and instead focus on the expression of your own ideas and emotions.

Kim Ayres said...

John - "Sport thrives on competition, art withers" - a brilliant point well made. One of those thoughts I'd not heard before but once said makes perfect sense :)

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