You Win, Photography Loses: Awards, Competitions and the Outsourcing of Responsibility

We need to begin asking, what are the mechanisms that have defined ‘good work’?

Adele breaks her 2017 Album of the Year Grammy for ‘25’ in half as she thanks Beyonce in disbelief that her ‘Lemonade’ album wasn’t awarded. © Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Who doesn’t want to be ‘The Best,’ Number One, First Prize? It is in our natural human psyche to want recognition from others, to be seen as outperforming those around you, and to be recognized for our supposed ‘good work.’ In photography, as in many other professions, the sport of recognition in the past few years has grown exponentially. A flurry of contests, prizes, awards, grants, trophies, accolades and honours have all sprouted like mushrooms, each uniquely positioning themselves as the ultimate arbiter of photographic success: exposure and recognition.

Often a competition’s desire is to discover or reward ‘good work,’ but a byproduct of that desire often leads institutions to seek legitimacy, indoctrinating a profession to their dominant values. We need to be wary. At what point does external approval override your own moral consciousness? When does judgement by others preclude your own sensibility for ‘good work?’

World Press Photo, the leading photographic prize in documentary and photojournalism, promises to “reward the best single exposure pictures,” while Foam Talent “marks you as an emerging artist with great promise and gives you the means to jumpstart your career.” These are just two of the more popular and prestigious competitions out there, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar prizes all offering the same thing.

Looking through my own CV, I find the following, in no particular order: Sony World Photography Awards (1st Place, twice); PDN Photo Annual (won quite a few of these too), LEAD Awards in Germany (at least I didn’t have to enter, they awarded me); POYi; World Report Award (Grand Prize, no less); National Magazine Awards (also served on the jury); AltPick (I won an iPod); American Photo Magazine; Prix Pictet, Flash Forward; Society of Newspaper Design, the list goes on.

A meme featuring Leonardo DiCaprio’s scene from ‘The Great Gatsby’ and his 2016 Academy Award for ‘The Revenant’

This is just an inkling of what is on offer to a professional today. It is critical we see awards not just in the sporting context of winners and losers, but as a whole and their total affect on the domain. There are sub-categories of categories, such as nominated competitions like Prix Pictet and Deutsche Börse, talent compendiums like Foam, Flash Forward and Steenberg, prizes which reward social engagement like Alexia Foundation and the W. Eugene Smith Fund. Each of these have validity and all strive to provide some semblance of excellence and integrity in photography, for either an industry audience or for external viewing. But do they?

We need to begin asking, what are the mechanisms that have defined ‘good work?’ Are all these competitions really necessary? Can annual competitions address visual success and challenge norms and conventions of contemporary photography? Is banality and mediocrity in photography truly abolished through a system of competition? I hardly think so.

At its base, competition is an egocentric desire to be acknowledged by others, and gives us cause or reason to share our newfound prestige with the world. Look at many of the posts of our friends and colleagues on social media, and note the uses of “I am humbled…,” “I am honored…,” “I am flattered…,” etc. No longer does personal agency define ‘good work,’ but rather, a system of external authorities and their codified behaviors determines ‘good’ from ‘bad.’ Your career depends on this ever-growing (and ability to sustain) accumulation of recognition. Success is measured in acquisition, be it economic, exposure or any other form.

Ideally, a competition is able to discover ‘good work’ by supporting the fulfillment of individual mandates while simultaneously contributing to the harmonious growth of individuals and the professional domain. Creative competition should not be couched in sporting terms of best or winner, but rather, what are the conditions that competition can provide to enable practitioners to freely pursue their craft skillfully and honorably? How can competition regain public trust in key institutions?

The cultural prize is nothing new nor is it particular to any one category of creativity. Artists, writers, musicians, poets, actors, architects, communication design and advertising, all have their annual showcases of ‘good work.’

Author James English calls this the “cultural economy of prestige.” English goes on to lament the intersection of sport into art, where competition determines quality through the act of winning and losing. It is a result of deeply ingratiating ourselves into a consumer, neo-liberal economy that values acquisition above all else. Consumerism has dictated our thirst for recognition. “Prizes, from this vantage point, are not a celebration but a contamination of the most precious aspects of art.”

The infamous 2017 Academy Award Best Picture mishap: ‘La La Land’ was announced as a winner instead of ‘Moonlight’ due to the mistake made by Price Waterhouse Coopers.

There are umpteen examples of photographers who conduct their work expertly, but irresponsibly. They have been recognized by leading awards and prizes. What we should seek are those who are thoughtful about their responsibilities and the implications of their work: good work.

‘Good work’ is easy to define. Harvard psychology professor Howard Gardner states: “Doing things in a new way is easy; we call this novelty. What’s challenging is to do things in a new way that eventually gets accepted by others; we call this creativity. What’s even more challenging is to do something in a new way that is ethical and advances the human condition; we call this ‘good work.’” In essence, it’s about excellence, social responsibility, and ethics. ‘Good work’ aims to be meaningful for the individual practitioner, but also contribute to the overall well-being of a society, be it through professional responsibility or the well-being contribution to citizenry. Competition, as the effluvium of capitalism, will never be able to recognize ‘good work’; it prides itself as the ne plus ultra of winners and losers, where their very legitimacy and authority is dependent upon the accrual of capital, be it economic or cultural.

It is not easy today to be a photographer and seek ‘good work’ amongst dramatic economic uncertainty and a profession wracked by confusion and doubt. Multiple threats align themselves to challenge even the hardiest of photographers. Media is consolidated under a few global corporations that are beholden to shareholder value and profit, galleries trade economically off exclusivity; the bottom line is the only line that matters. ‘Good work’ is but a distant dream.

In these tumultuous times, photographers are relegated to any means necessary to generate business and sustain themselves within the marketplace. Competition has come to be viewed as our saving grace. In lieu of little to no financial compensation, professional competition instead offers currency paid out in promises of recognition and exposure. The promise, as advertised by a professional establishment of gatekeepers and award organizations, is a burnished reputation, with prospects of future income only securely tied to newly acquired prestige, status and recognition. It’s a simple, transactional, economic ouroboro: awards equals business, creating a completely co-dependent relationship, where their need for legitimacy and authority is established by our need to seek approval and recognition. With this recognition, both sides are then able to acquire a hotly contested commodity: cultural capital. The more you acquire, the higher up the food chain you progress within the domain and your ability to maintain placement within the photographic system, securing a (temporary) seat in the photographic marketplace, either on the side of the arbiter (gatekeeper) or the creator (photographer).

A common link between all these professional prizes, beyond their promise of fame and riches, is their self-preservation as institutional forces lead by a code of ethics or behaviors. A profession is ideally determined by some form of self-governing codes placed at the disposal of the practitioner, yet securely above the marketplace. A leading example of codes governing good work is the bioethical Hippocratic Oath. However, when codes of behavior become enmeshed with the marketplace, it can lead to compromised interests, such as in medieval times when communication was controlled by ecclesiastical or secular elites for their own self-interest, or journalistic standards pushed aside for profit, overwhelming the possibility of quality work through corrupted behavior.

© Rafal Milach, images from ‘The Winners’ series (2010–2013) featuring the best of the best in various state and local competitions held in Belarus and supported by the authorities. Winners are present in kolkhozes, schools, public institutions, nightclubs, village discos and on Boards of Honour in almost each Belarusian town.

Competitions do hold the right to create whatever rule they desire. But when it crosses the line into governing or modulating behavior deterring the aspirations of practitioners, and where moral identity is drawn not from the work but from the validation, we have a problem.

Tensions can be productive and forces practitioners to examine their own fundamental values, but one must never confuse personal integrity with the integrity of a profession based upon a codified set of laws or rules constructed in the service of the organization or system itself. We must be wary and not outsource our ethics and excellence to institutions or organizations, whose proscribed codes are inextricably linked to those that stand as gatekeepers to the profession. (Oftentimes, many of these gatekeepers have already been validated by multiple competitions, thus become ‘within’ and their own respective careers are legitimized). These codes become mechanisms for further institutional control of the photographic domain, creating a relationship of dependency for the photographer upon a system that, due to its accumulation of power, is unquestionable (lest any tenuous connection to economic viability be revoked).


As a frequent participant (on both sides, entrant and juror) to competition, I see its importance as a potential tool to communicate to external audiences the value of a photographic profession and to help instill trust within the commercial domain. But there are clearly present weaknesses.

After serving many times on various competition juries, I realized nuanced work doesn’t get a strong opportunity, nor storytelling relying upon more complex themes and construction.

At times, the overly dramatic, or photographers with pure compositional skill or other visual cues, are elements that prove consistent in making it through a ‘Yes’ vote and onto the next round. As the jury process wears on, the initial naiveté in judging is based upon personal standards of ‘good,’ and moving forward, these notions of good are transformed by collective consensus. As a jury, you become merciful, risky, compassionate, sometimes lazy and hypocritical. We are human.

Through these experiences, I recognized that competition is about creating subservience as an expression of power, a forum of submission to maintain dominance and legitimize systemic authority. By submitting, you do just that — collude with institutional authority and concede your moral imperative, conforming to a hegemonic hierarchy in return for revered status in your domain.

In our present condition of the industrial-awards complex, (recognition plus legitimacy plus economic desperation equals institutional complicity), either you live up to the implicit covenant that justifies your professional status, or you do not (in which case you are then perceived to live a life of furtive deception). Nobody else is responsible for upholding the values of ‘good work’ other than your own moral responsibility, yet one must maintain a connection to the wider community, to vital traditions, and to people and institutions yet to come. ‘Good work’ extends beyond meaningful individual practice, but also seeks excellence through social responsibility and the development of knowledge to create thoughtful decisions; for yourself, for a community and for a profession. To paraphrase Harvard psychology Howard Gardner again: “Excellence, ethics, and engagement.”

Photography is an important component of cognitive capitalism; the product that creative industries produce is at the very foundation of how power is generated and regulated. Competition is the very engine of this ‘cognitive production.’ Institutions are formed as mechanisms to maintain power, while codified behavior is set to regulate and control the profession, ensuring that ‘good work’ emanates from an exclusive, institutional vantage.

I don’t believe in discarding competition altogether; it serves a purpose to disseminate ‘good work.’ But how can we, as a collective corpus, engage in ‘good work’ in these tumultuous times? How do we foster a system where ‘good work’ is reflected not in its reverence to a codified form of behaviors, but rather towards the sharing of knowledge and ideas, a platform to discover diverse opinions of quality? The act of competition should be an ultimate act of moral resistance in a professional world, rather than the enslavement to a market driven, commercial ideology.

Photography is not alone in this enslavement. The design and advertising domain is also rife with authoritative institutions driving the dialogue of contemporary practice. But, within this domain, fissures are starting to form. Oliver Vodeb established Memefest in 2002 as an alternative to reward innovative and socially responsive approaches to communication design and art. He sees, what he calls a “friendly competition,” as a means to establish a dynamic where skills and knowledge are rewarded and pushed to a higher level in a dialogic manner. The star-driven, capital, advertising, design and art competitions such as festivals or biennials, is supplanted by a process which is “much more formative than selective. Knowledge and ideas need to be shared, and the competition helps to share good quality works,” he states.

Instead of ‘stardom’ the best ones get pedagogical feedback. This educational dimension, which is part of the competition (jurors write suggestions on how to improve the submissions and articulate their opinion on the submissions quality), is fundamental to Memefest’s philosophy.

Utilizing Vodeb’s radical understanding of competition provides a blueprint towards a future of the decolonization of knowledge, particularly knowledge accrued through capitalist regimes of knowledge production and value creation.

Still from ‘Unsighted’ by Andrea Ellen Reed, recipient of the supplementary Visionary Award 2017 from the Tim Hetherington Trust. Her video project offers an authentic insight into the Black experience in the US

In the photographic domain, the Tim Hetherington Trust’s Visionary Award is an example of an institution discarding contemporary norms of competition and seeking ‘good work’ through matching individual imperatives combined with the social engagement a work may have in a community. In the words of Executive Director Stephen Mayes, “I continue to search for alternative vocabulary that doesn’t include ‘winner.’”

‘Good work’ is about the ability to be challenged and engage socially, to draw a moral identity from the work produced and its impact upon community. It is not in the bestowing of recognition and exposure, or as mechanisms to perpetuate ‘cognitive capitalism.’

What would happen if we realign the profession not on these modes of competition, but rather collaboration and cooperation? Ultimately, if our aim is to build relationships that sustain and support the fulfillment of individual potential while contributing to the harmonious growth of a community and society; than an intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, experience needs to be embraced.


This article has originally appeared in FoMu’s print magazine EXTRA, issue 22.

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