Prestige photo contests unite us all. In disbelief…

Art or cobblers? Either way, I didn't win

If there is one thing that’s guaranteed to make most red-blooded enthusiast photographers veer uncontrollably towards the apoplectic, it’s the big hoo-hah surrounding the announcement of the results of the big annual photography competitions.

Not all photo competitions are created equal, you see. Some require talented photographers to take years of practice to fine-tune their skills, learn about composition and correct exposure, master flawless printing, have great ideas and translate them to paper well. Amazing light, great drama, captivating subject material and a sprinkling of luck help, too.

These are the sort of contests run by well-established and respected photography associations or magazines, where getting a picture sharp, well-exposed and eye-grabbing are rightly honoured. Contests like this are great excuses to get out with your camera and try something new, or fine-tune your skills before offering your work up for direct comparison with your peers. And they’re fun.

It’s not competitions like these that cause so much angst with dedicated photo enthusiasts, oh no. It’s typically the big international contests that pay out big money, big kudos or both. Like the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, the Deutsche Borse prize or any other of the big-sponsor contests.


These are the contests that seem to pride themselves on picking winners that blatantly attempt to defy the rules of photography. “Glum people in flat lighting deadpan to camera in centre of frame” is a typical winner, as are photos where you can’t see the winner’s face. So are badly-framed pseudo snapshots that could have been taken on an iPhone with its tiny hard flash and sod the quality or lack of. And amazingly sharp large-format photos of totally nondescript Eastern European landscapes are popular with judges, too. Just as long as everything is printed out huge and hung on a gallery wall.

So recently I’ve made it a small personal mission to understand why and how some of these photos win. In a vain bid to win one myself, of course.

The first and most important rule is that the photo must disobey all the rules of photography, apart from one. Because getting just one of the rules right shows that you’re a true artists who purposely chooses to snub all other conventions.

So getting the photo in focus, choosing the right aperture and shutter speed to get the exposure correct as well as the right amount of blur, selecting the right time of day or lighting kit to convey a certain mood with your lighting are all vastly over-rated. As is getting a flattering pose, a good choice of location and composition that’s appealing with the right viewpoint and focal length. All those sorts of things that photographers usually strive to attain.

Then, you have to dream up some worthy cause or issue that your photo purports to be addressing. “Dissecting the ordinary and bizarre in British life” and “the psychology of architecture” are just two of the statements about some potential award-winners this year.

Then, you need to write an artist’s statement about your work, using such trumped-up sentences as: “The internal dynamic of the figurative-narrative line-space matrix endangers the devious simplicity of the distinctive formal juxtapositions.” Or other such nonsense you can purloin off the internet, like I just did.

So with this in mind, I’ve decided it’s time to see if I can make my mark on the international photo comp scene. The photography was the easy bit. I quickly snapped a friend of mine messing about in a borrowed studio for five minutes, using the lights that were still set up from last time someone else used it and whatever lens and settings the camera already had.

Not seeing the face is often critical for art boors. Note the significance of the balanced chair for visual tension. Cough, cough...
Not seeing the face is often critical for art boors. Note the significance of the balanced chair for visual tension. Cough, cough…

The nonsensical artspeak title of the piece is “Visual androgyny: A return to familial consequences” and my accompanying artist’s statement includes such verbose waffle as: “The metaphorical malevolence and subcutaneous resonance of the gesture visually and conceptually activates the essentially transitional quality.” All total cobblers.

Wish me luck. Although I already feel I may have fallen at the first hurdle. See, the exposure isn’t miles out and I have failed to crop out major interesting parts of the photo. And I even thought a bit about the composition. I just couldn’t help myself. Old habits, eh…