Paid Street Photography Contests Are Just a Lottery Ticket

Street photography contests can be beneficial for some, but for most, they’re nothing more than a lottery.

New street photography competitions are popping upeach year. Because the craft is so easily accessible, it’s a sure-fire way for organizations to guarantee a high amount of entries (not to mention a nice amount of money). I fail to take pay-to-enter photography competitions seriously. No matter how hard an organization tries to mask its intentions, they’re nothing more than money-spinners, and most of those who enter are buying a lottery ticket.

Same Old Street Photography

Shooting street photography became a form of meditation.

Amongst the many competitions around the world is probably the most recognizable, the Lens Culture Street Photography Awards. Year on year, thousands of hopeful street photographers enter their best images in the hope of finding glory. The rewards can be plenty for those who are successful. Major global publications often feature the winners, and from that can come a host of professional opportunities. Last year The Phoblographer interviewed Sevil Alkan, a worthy winner of the series category, and it was a pleasure to showcase some refreshing work within the street photography community.

But each year, as I research the many competitions around the world looking for new street photographers to profile, the same thought always seems to come to my mind: anyone could have taken these photos.

“Nobody would admit it, but impartial judging is certainly not something that exists throughout many of these competitions.”

To be clear, I’m not downplaying the skillset or suggesting anyone with a camera could have taken them. What I am saying, however, is that the general aesthetic of many of the winners offers nothing new to the conversation. Why is one minimal street photographer’s image better than another, when both seemingly seem to send the same message?

That’s not to say original work isn’t out there. Alkan’s work was refreshing, and second place in this year’s Lens Culture series category, Toby Binder, offered a thoughtful and meaningful body of work as well. Personally, I think he should have taken first place, and I’m sure others will agree.

But aside from them, a lot of the work of the finalists and winners all feel a little too similar.

The Judging Process

Being on the inside (as pretentious as that sounds), I know how many photography competitions are judged. There’s only so much time someone can dedicate to trawling through the many images sent in, especially when very few offer a fresh perspective. There has to be a tipping point: a stage in the judging process where you have to give yourself a reason to pick some winners. Many factors determine why photographers are selected, and sadly, quality isn’t always the driving force.

Ever wondered why you see the same names crop up each year at street photography festivals? Are you curious as to why the same style seems to dominate the narrative of what judges deem to be good street photography? It’s because the community is very cliquey. There’s very much a “pat on the back” culture. Nobody would admit it, but impartial judging is certainly not something that exists throughout many of these competitions.

“So while the likes of Lens Culture keeps doing its thing, and the other competitions keep doing their thing, forgot about them and just do your thing.

That’s why I say that when you enter them, you’re buying a lottery ticket. Sure, you may not be successful because your work isn’t quite up to standard yet, but for the most part, it’s because you were not randomly selected or because you’re not quite in with the crowd and its idea of good street photography. Again, no organization in its right mind would admit to this, but it’s true.

The worst part is you’re essentially giving your money away. You’re paying to win a competition you never had a chance of winning in the first place.

Save Your Money

If you want to enter a competition, enter the ones that you don’t need to pay for. The Phoblographer ran its own street photography competition this year. It was free to enter, had only one winner, and the prize was a brand new camera! By entering a free competition, you’re not out of pocket if you don’t win. Sure, your ego maybe slightly bruised, but you can use that to go on and get better.

So while the likes of Lens Culture keeps doing its thing, and the other competitions keep doing their thing, forgot about them and just do your thing. And you can save all the money you would have spent on competitions and instead spend it on more rewarding things like travel and photography gear instead!