HOW TO WIN MORE
Ace your next award entry, win over the judges and potentially change your career
Just think of the money. For photographers at every stage of their career, a huge range of competitions and grants offer substantial cash boosts to the bottom line. There are awards for all types and genres of photography, for individual photos, a life’s work or even a future project.
But the money is only part of the appeal. For its Portrait of Britain competition this September, The British Journal of Photography exhibited 100 winning portraits in bus stops, train stations and high streets on advertising screens. This nationwide street exhibition put winning photographs in front of more eyes than any regular exhibition ever could.
It’s the combination of prestige and increased exposure with financial reward that makes competitions and grants so appealing. Yet, from choosing your best shot or sequence, to finding the right words to describe them, the application process can be nerve-wracking and time-consuming.
We spoke to winners and judges, to find out what are juries looking for, how to present your best work in the best possible way and if there are any secrets to making it onto the shortlists.
When Max Miechowski moved to London in 2017, he walked the streets in an attempt to get used to the pace of a big city. That’s how, not far from where he lived, he spotted Musah working in a fish-and-chip shop. His portrait of Musah became a winning image in the 2018 Portrait of Britain award.
“There was an amazing light on him at the time and, after talking for a while about our different experiences of the city, I asked to take his portrait,” Max says. “What excites me about portraiture is the collaborative nature of it. Two people sharing a moment, recognising and respecting each other, and making an image together.” This was not a ‘planned’ award entry, or even a planned shoot. Your images are as valid as competition entries as anyone else’s.
“While money is helpful, giving photographers an international platform is equally important.”
Stefan Boness has been a professional photographer since 1997 and recently won the 2019 Alfred Fried Photography Award Peace Image of the Year for his image of a Fridays for Future march. “The movement surrounding the charismatic figure of climate activist Greta Thunberg gained my attention early this year,” says the Berlin-based photographer. “I was immediately impressed by the commitment, creativity and the cheerful dynamics of these very young activists, and started photographing them without assignment, although I have sold quite a few shots of the protests to Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, taz and Die Zeit.”
From his hundreds of shots from numerous marches, Stefan selected 18 for his award-winning reportage, including his winning image, Our future in your hands. “I regularly enter competitions but only a few,” says Stefan. “The Alfred Fried award is a wonderful one, not only concerning the subject, peace, but also because of the fantastic initiatives of the people behind the award.”
“The most important thing [for judges to see] are convincing pieces of high-quality work that are well-presented and somehow innovative,” she tells Nikon Pro. “Furthermore the influence of other artists shouldn’t be too obvious. To be unique, to be innovative, is very important.
“If I was trying to convince someone to fund me, to support me, to buy my work, I would think about how to give an idea of my work in the limited period of time a jury will be considering it. So, that would be about having good shots but also writing something that is both clear and accessible.”
The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation awards grants to photographers at all stages of their careers, from graduates all the way through to established professionals. While money is helpful, she insists that being able to give photographers an international platform is equally important.
Speaking to Anne-Marie and Stefan, it became clear that there are certain things you can do to be more likely to win an award or prize. Originality is perhaps the most important component of your entry. A high degree of technical competence counts for little if the subject matter or style is directly taken from the work of others.
Then there is the storytelling. If you are submitting a sequence or selection of images, see if you can write the story those images tell, in simple, accompanying text as short as possible. Many photographers struggle, or at least think they struggle, with words. Try to think of the image as the ‘what’ of the story, and then any text is the ‘who’ and ‘why’ to go with it.
If you don’t feel confident about your writing, show it to someone who works with words and ask them for their help or opinion. Don’t ask a close friend or family member to read your stuff: they will almost always be too positive and uncritical.
Websites such as photocontestguru.com and lenscratch.com have lists of grants and prizes. And don’t think that large international prizes are beyond your reach. Last year, the €25,000 Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award, given at the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles festival to a photobook-in-the-making, was chosen from just 146 entries. Odds of 146/1 of a career-changing win are in your favour. ￼