Tuesday, January 27, 2004

It is contest season

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

A Mesquite swimmer practices turning at the Town East Pool in Mesquite on Tuesday, January 27, 2004. Mesquite doesn't have an indoor pool, so swimmers practice at a heated outdoor pool.

Ahhh... Contest season. Can't you just see the hair falling out and getting stuck in the keyboard at 4 a.m. on deadline day. Then the keys stick. Then there is a loud bang, bang, bang, DAMN! Bang, bang sound from the other side of the scanning room. Then possibly some sobbing.

Yup. It really is this much fun. Contest season is the wonderful time of the year when you can look at all your hard work from the previous year and determine you don't have squat. Not only don't you have squat, you start wondering why you worked so hard to be squatless.

It doesn't matter. You need to send something anyway. Why? Because you do this ritualistic masochism each year. It is part of the tradition. If you don't try, then what? Horrible nightmares.

So what exactly is contest season?
It is the time from Dec. 31 through the ending date of the last major contest. In this time, photojournalists try to narrow their images down to a set of 20 images (stories count as 1 everywhere) from the last 12 months and submit those same (or slight variations) to as many contests as possible. The hope is to win, but we all know the odds are slim. A major competition gets thousands of entrants -- all with award-winning images.

Contests by their nature have some problems. The judges are not necessarily choosing the best images. They are eliminating the worst and comparing the remainder against mental images of previous winners.

The judges are tasked with whittling (for example) 100,000 images down to 1st, 2nd, 3rd and up to three Honorable Mentions in a matter of days.

Many of the images at a major competition have won awards at other competitions throughout the year. This will effect the judge. Similarly, sleep deprivation, a cold, a traffic jam, a hangover, a childhood fear of oranges or any other problem in the world might effect the judge.

Most images are viewed for about one to three (1-3) seconds. That's it. If the judge spots a problem -- any problem -- it is "out." This causes simple, clean images to be favored and "complicated" images to be quickly eliminated.

Because of the above subjectivity, one DMN freelancer refuses to compete in any contests. I keep trying to convince him that he is not looking at the big picture. So, we will look only toward the positives of competing.

Contests are how two equal shooters are separated. A person applying for an internship or a news job has a photojournalism degree from a fine university with 3.8 GPA, a full rig with all the right lenses and lights, etc.
Potential employers use the same standards as photo contest judges. It is not a matter of selecting the best job candidate. It is a matter of eliminating the worst.

Those portfolios left on the desk need to stand apart from the others. Competition is how this occurs.

I can promise there is no photo editor who will toss aside an average portfolio if they see the shooter has a Pulitzer Prize on his/her resume. Such portfolio gets a "bye" to the final round of judging for the job. Having staff photographers with major awards is good for the prestige (and marketing) of the newspaper, magazine or other business.

I think I got my friend's attention. He decided he would compete. Now what? Look at the contest rules and see if you meet any of the criteria. Are you a woman working for a newspaper for less than two years? No. Well, that eliminated some of the contest possibilities immediately.

There are many "little" contests. These are good training grounds. However, the photojournalism majors are Pulitzer Prize, World Press Photo (WPP), Photographs of the Year (POY), NPPA's Best of Photojournalism (BOP), Associated Press Managing Editors Award (APME), Society for News Design (SND), National Headliner Awards, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, Katie Awards and others.

Some pay huge cash prizes. Some also charge huge entry fees. Obviously, those with the highest cash awards for the lowest entry fee become the most difficult to win. Once most staffers get their fill of regular awards, they might only enter the cash prize contests. Some senior photojournalists quit competing altogether. This is good in a way because it makes competition easier for those just starting out. Although it is not great for photojournalism in general.

There are two ways to approach contest season. I prefer to look at what I have done throughout the year and hammer it into the closest identification hole. "This looks like a feature to me." I prefer to shoot for our readers rather than a contest judge.

Others will shoot specifically for competition. To be honest, this plan works better than my plan. You can immediately tell which photographers do this from a set of their images. This practice is frowned upon by most photojournalists, but it keeps winning year after year. So, until several contests crack down on the shooters, it will continue to happen.

Likewise, severely toning images is starting to get some attention as was done this year when Patrick Schneider's images were disqualified. This is more of a digital ethics issue though.

Enough for now,


Christopher said...

I would first like to say that I find your blog to not only be fascinating and extremely informative but it may very well be a lifesaver for me. Here is a short background history on me.
I have, since I was very young been interested in Photography; the problem was I allowed myself to be dissuaded from pursuing it as a career choice. So I took to my second interest and became a Chef. Well after many years in this profession I decided like many others to try my hand at another career. I choose advertising. I went to Miami Ad School and ended up graduating at one of their satellite schools in Hamburg Germany. While attending the school’s copywriting program I also took photo classes, which concentrated on product, fashion, promotional (CD covers for example) photography. I worked in an ad agency here in Hamburg when I was fresh out of school and ended up winning five short list awards for three different entry categories. I was working on international clients so my being fluent in German was not a factor for this job. I am of course learning the language but it is very a difficult language. During my job at the agency I was asked to execute some photo jobs. Not many but I liked the experience of working with my camera.

On to my specific challenges, even with five short list awards under my belt (in both international and German contest) from my first ever job in advertising I can’t seem to find another job here in advertising. So in order to keep from moving to that oh so comfortable looking under bridge location I started doing some photography. I have done weddings, travel (for a resort’s self promotional material) portrait, event and advertising. It may sound like a lot but the work is not steady and so far I am not making what I would like per gig. This is where I hope your blog and your tutelage may save me from a negative change of residence and diet. I would like to continue to pursue a career in photography. In reading through your blog, which I have read much of but not all, some red flags have been raised. In one of your posts you mentioned that a 4-year degree is required to gain assignments shooting for international news agencies. I do not possess one and do not see myself going back to school to gain one. I do not have the financial backing to go to school again. I feel that this skews the playing field in favor to those who have the finances to go to school and underprivileged but talented individuals are left hanging. I know you do not make the rules but can you think of creative way of bending them, of getting around the obstacle of a four-year degree? In the end it should fall upon the image a shooter captures and his/her ability. My last question I would like to enter contest. The problem here is that I am very broke. I feel my wealth is in my talent with the camera but not in my wallet. I would like to make the two equal but again I have to have a creative solution to enter contest on a very tight budget. Also the photos I have to enter have not been in any publications yet so they fail some contest rules can you think of any contest that do not have this restriction? I hope you do not mind the length of the post. I felt, I need to give you a proper background in order for you to help with my specific problems. Thanks for the blog and all the info. I will make more posts as questions arise; hope this is okay with you. You can see some of my photos at www.tripleravenimages.com you may just tell me to hang it up and move on to yet another career choice. Hope not! Kind regards. Christopher St. John

Mark M. Hancock said...

This probably would have been better as an e-mail.
A four-year degree isn't required for freelancers, but it helps. It's needed to become staff at a major metro paper. This is because everyone else applying for the job has degrees, pro PJ awards and years of experience at smaller dailies.
A back door to the publication requirement in contests is creating a (free) photoblog such as this one. Posting images on a blog or "commercial" (editorial) website counts as "publication." Since the contest went digital, this is even more viable.
If you're already in NPPA, you can enter your work each month in the contests and see how you stack up. While NPPA has annual dues, the monthly contests are free to enter and wins are considered significant.
Advertising awards aren't news awards. If anything, they could be considered the opposite of news and might work against you.