Thoughts on Club Competitions

Recently one of our presenters — internationally recognized photographer David duChemin — published on his blog site a post entitled “Clubs, Competitions & Critiques.” David brings up many valuable observations and clearly has well-considered opinions, some of which may be construed as being controversial and even critical of camera club competitions. We leave that to you to judge and if you feel so inclined comment on David’s blog post page, as many others have.

As your club board we have read and discussed David’s post and thought that in response a few of us would write of our own competition experiences and observations in the club.

Thoughts from the Competition Director — Jason Hutchison

One of the goals of our club is to help photographers of all experience levels improve their craft. Another goal is to bring like-minded people together, share experiences, learn from each other and enjoy each other’s company. Competitions are a great way to achieve all of that. 

Some photographers have come and gone from our competitions for various reasons. Some have stayed for many years and still enjoy it today. My hope is that you learn something every time you share your work, and you use that information to improve or grow your photography in some small way. If we are not constantly learning, this passion that we all share cannot continue to grow.

Why I Participate in Club Competitions and Think You Should Too — Greg Smith

By nature I am not a competitive person. But I am cursed with being a perfectionist. As my biggest critic, rarely do I find myself satisfied with final outcomes. However, I have enjoyed entering club competitions even though it took me five years to gain the courage to do so. The reason I participate is because I am competing with myself, not against others, and find it a great measure of my improvement.

Joining a camera club offers opportunities to socialize and photograph with like-minded individuals, learn techniques and strategies to improve our image making, and to find moments in which there is sharing with a wider audience. These are enhanced in a competitive environment.

In preparing for a competition, a photographer becomes more thoughtful, finding it quite necessary to be self-disciplined in selecting photos for submission. Questions arise such as whether selected images best reflect stated themes. Perhaps particular photographs cannot stand on their own, or are better suited for a different event.

Judges review a competition subjectively. After all, it’s art not rocket science. Photos I’ve entered have been scored eight or nine by one judge and four by another. Images I spent hours processing to get just right or I find powerfully emotive, because a valued memory is represented, went nowhere. Judges have no background in why you picked a particular picture. A photo I thought unremarkable and derivative, added just to fill my allotted quota, surprisingly won first place. With such moments, one begins to understand that the viewer comes from a different background of knowledge, experience, and perspective. Interpretation bounds to vary. I have learned to accept and even appreciate that. It is enlightening.    

Critiques are also subject to the vagaries of differing personal preferences. The critiques offered at our club meetings are typically benign, may seem petty at times, but as a whole they are meant to be constructive. I don’t always agree (personal preference!), but I found those observations to allow me to make significant improvements in my work. If I keep an open mind, those critiques offer possibilities that add options I had not considered. Critics of clubs and competitions may say they force a sort of inbred conformity to the club canon, stifling artistic freedom. I see none of that in our club. We have an eclectic group of rotating judges, who are unknown to participants beforehand. If you look at the standings, you will notice that our top two photographers use completely different subjects and styles.  

If you feel that club competitions repeatedly fail to recognize or appreciate your “inner voice,” it might be that you need to learn ways to more strongly express that feeling in your photos, or that it’s time to let it go and embrace something new.

Success in competitions is rewarding. It brings wider recognition to the entrant and validates one’s efforts to improve. I enjoy the creativity of fellow members. My experience is mostly confined to the Wasatch Camera Club but I agree caution is warranted when participating in larger, especially commercial, photo competitions. They can be costly and/or exploitative of your intellectual property rights. Just remember to act like a penguin: keep your cool, find warmth among your photography friends (and we’re all your friends), and dive in.  

Why I Used to Compete but No Longer Do So – Jeff Clay

As a long-time player of games, I am a competitive person. As a once, but no longer, long-time practitioner of the non-competitive Japanese martial art Aikido, I came to realize that competition should be with myself, not the opponent. Winning is good, but not in order to be top dog, but rather to better oneself.

That’s all very zen-like but I still remember the warm glow of satisfaction when I won my first club competition in 2009. It was a validation that my newly emerging vision and skill set were headed in the “right” direction. But then one of the club members said – in those days the members asked questions and/or commented on the winning images – “It would be a stronger image if you flipped it horizontally as we read left-to-right and flipping it would create a stronger line to follow.” I was astonished. I had never heard of this “rule” and thought the idea preposterous as then Stansbury Island and the Great Salt Lake would be geographically running in a physically impossible direction. Needless to say I never have and will never flip that image!

I learned several things from that very first competition that have been validated over the years:

  • Competitions can be personally rewarding.
  • It is fun to share your work.
  • Understand the so-called rules so that you can know when to bend, break or ignore them.
  • Usage of the rules can help improve an image but blind adherence can stifle your vision and creativity.
  • Critiquing is valuable, but in the end the vast majority of it is subjective. Always listen, but YOU decide what to incorporate and what to discard.
  • People generally mean well and are trying to be helpful, but criticism can be taken personally (because we love our images so much!).

I went on to compete for many years and even managed the competitions for about three years prior to Jason taking it on. And then I stopped. Why? I still believe that critiquing can be a valuable tool especially for those just starting out or for those who may have hit a creative impasse. It can certainly provide teaching moments. It can be personally rewarding. It can be a forum for recognition. It is satisfying to share images. It can act as a nice outlet for social interaction. The Competition Program can scratch a lot of itches. So why stop?

Around the same time I ended my Competition run, I stopped submitting images for other contests and became much more active in selling images via festivals, markets and exhibits. I began taking 3-5 international trips a year generating thousands of images per trip. My art and craft were improving, mostly due to the fact that I was shooting and processing so much. I was exploring and expanding my vision, my repertoire of work and, quite frankly, I wanted little input from others. For me, the competitions became a distraction and a time-sink. I felt like I needed to do more and more in order to stay competitive, and being competitive was no longer where I wanted to be. Now I happy in my role of Competitions Emeritus!

I am also happy to report that many of the dysfunctional elements of club competitions that David duChemin discusses in his blog post are absent in our club. I have seen a healthy, even nurturing competition program in my 12 years with the club. I have seen a deep acceptance for diverse images and subject matter. I have seen little of the conformity stifling elements that are out there, especially in social media forums. I have seen a large palette of quality judges who offer sincere and helpful criticism that is usually well received. We – and Jason should take a lot of the credit for this – have built and maintained a solid, popular Competitions Program that continues to grow and provide satisfaction for our members. There is always room for improvement of course, so please, if you have any suggestions, send them to Jason or any Board member.

The Competitions Program is an important part of the club’s offerings and I don’t ever envision a time when it is not part of the club. But for a number of reasons, it’s not for everyone. And, that’s okay, as we have a very well rounded club with workshops and educational programs, field trips programs, exhibits and social events programs. That, I believe, is the reason we can thrive even during pandemic times!