Are Competitions hurting Club Photography?

Today's blog post was something that's been kicking around in my head for a while but following a quite astonishing evening of club photography recently I've decided to open up my train of thought to discussion. I'm not sure if I'll reach a conclusion but I'm hoping to at least spin off a couple of other discussion topics :)

I've long since wondered why out of most major art forms, photography practiced worldwide by clubs & societies level seems the most fixated on the concept of competition. Why don't we see clubs with weekly watercolour competitions for example? To preface the discussion to come, I'm not necessarily against the idea of competition within photography and done well it can generate hugely useful critique for your images. But do we really need to sit huddled around a projector, waiting with baited breath to see what score our image will be granted? It's a scene replicated at federation, regional, national and even international level.

Why is photography the only art (that I know of) where an image is regularly taken apart by a judge, analysed then awarded an arbitrary score? Even in exhibitions with only 1st - 3rd and commendations, why is it that so many photographers yearn to put their work up against others to be called "the best"? I understand the human compulsion for recognition & praise but why do photographers seek that through competition? Does it do more harm than good in improving our ability - are we fixated more on producing work to please a judge than we are in producing truly great, emotive pieces of art? Could we even be dissuading new photographers if they are put off by the standards & expectations that have come to be associated with club photography?

When it comes to the prolificity of competition, I'm going out on a limb and say it's simply because it's quicker & easier to produce large numbers of photographic works. We can quickly and easily churn out good images when the winning formula is there for all to see. It's a good thing in some respects too as it means beginners can get involved rapidly too - unlike those oil painting tournaments where it takes years to produce a single piece of work :)  Photography is an "easier" genre to produce lots of work which lends itself to a competitive community.

Certainly it's a widely known cliche that camera club photography is a self-reinforcing genre of its own, lambasted by those communities who turn their nose up at it and fiercely defended by its advocates. Club & exhibition judges, in an effort to be consistent perhaps, mark our images according to rules laid down by the federated bodies & what they see in other competitions. Marking is almost always negative and I'm sure you've heard the phrase "this would have scored higher if these technical flaws were addressed". Negative marking is frustrating for the photographer and probably the judges aren't too happy either but it happens because judges over time have been conditioned to find reasons not to award images high marks. It's understandable; with several tens, if not hundreds, of images in one sitting  judgesneeds a means of rapidly differentiating images but I can't help but feel it's a process that breeds the same kind of images over and over. Evidence for this is borne out in the results for federal & national level, and again in UK international exhibitions. It's the same type of images time and again which leads to proliferation of more clones because "that's what wins". Competition has bred a certain favoured style and the practioners of that style are disproportionately rewarded. 

I'm not so naive as to think that competition is entirely bad for the art, nor that the musings on my blog will in any way have an impact. For those inclined to compete, a regular event to aim for can be a good incentive to get out and shoot. Too many photographers have invested time, money & effort into pursuing glory for it to go away. Likewise, too many exhibition organisers & international federations make far too much money to worry about rocking the boat. But is there a better way of competing at grass-roots club level that focuses more on what’s truly valuable – the critique – and dispenses with the randomness that comes from scored judging?

Many clubs use a traditional points-out-of-ten scoring system, or a close variant, and generally speaking the points scored are netted at the end of the season to determine an overall winner. I’ve seen an interesting alternate system is that everyone is awarded the same points for each image entered and only the 1st > 3rdplace photographers, plus a handful of commendations, are awarded slightly higher.  So for example, each image scores 10, a commended image scores 11, 3rd scores 12 and so on. There’s a benefit to “winning” and you can still have an overall season champion but with scoring removed the judge can spend more time & brainpower on providing critique. It also removes another hallmark of judging, that of the wildly differing scores between judges. More consistent but less comedy value I guess! This “flat” scoring system is an improvement but why not go a step further?  Why not remove scoring completely – the judge then simply needs to pick their top 3 favourites and a handful of commendations. This leaves them totally free to work on critique and hopefully, because there are no scores, they can move away from the blight that is negative scoring.  No scores means you don’t lose a mark for that bright spot in the corner. An image that would lose mark for a distracting objection can now be assessed on whether it works as a whole, not as a collection of “spot the defects”. Sometimes I daydream of a world where a judge will say “this spot might be a bit too bright but it doesn’t harm the story & emotional impact the photographer has presented”.Imagine that!

Maybe changes like these will make it easier for new photographers to find their place in the club scene, maybe it will reduce the frustration from inconsistent scoring. Maybe it will do neither, but I believe it’s worth considering by all clubs. Shift your focus from scores to critique and I think your judges & members will enjoy things a lot more.

What it won’t change though is the message from the top. As has been debated countless times before, there are certain styles of photograph, processing and presentation which are simply more likely to do well when presented to the niche panel of UK photography judges in the “top tier”. The UK is famous for it – I’ve personally witnessed discussion between overseas photographers about how it’s easy to do well in UK events by simply producing images they know UK judges want and it’s a shame the UK is no longer considered a pioneer in photography but rather a competition goldmine. Even if we fix UK club competitions to be focused more on feedback & critique it still won’t help us escape the fact that in UK photography there is such an inherent bias present at the higher levels I feel it’s ultimately stifling creativity & expression.  I’m not sure how we address that or even if those who advocate it want it fixed. But if we don’t fix it we continue perpetuating the cycle, breeding a clique of competition photographers & judges for whom constant self-improvement & artistic self-expression is secondary to the need to win competitions by churning out the same images again and again.