How to Win Competitions and Influence People

Baima Mountain, Deqin,Yunnan

The Baima Pass, Deqin, China, 2016

A slightly tongue-in-cheek title but, the usual Christmas festivities apart, it was the world of photography competitions that occupied me for some days at the end of the latest trip. I don’t usually leave my late-year China shooting quite so late, but promoting 50 Paths in New York and elsewhere delayed it. One surprise that came from this was to discover how good the weather is in northern Yunnan in the winter. Brilliant and cloudless skies week after week; such a pity that it’s the end of the tourist season. The sun stays fairly low for much of the day, and the light has an almost lunar quality high on the 4,000-metre Baima Pass (our banner picture above). Further down toward Shangri-La is Napahai, the wetlands that change during the year from a lake to grassland. Here it was in March…

Napa Lake (wetlands), horses grazing, Shangri-La (Zhongdian), Yunnan

Napa Lake (wetlands), horses grazing, Shangri-La (Zhongdian), Yunnan

…and on this winter’s morning, really lucky to find a black-necked crane so close to the road. This endangered species winters here at Napahai. Wildlife’s not my speciality, but the combination of rare subject, light and lens worked, as it should.

Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), Napa Hai, Shangri-La, Yunnan

Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), Napa Hai, Shangri-La, Yunnan

Then, well into December, instead of returning to London via Zurich as usual, I went to Riyadh, to attend the awards ceremony for the Colors of Saudi competition. I had previously judged this, the national photo competition, three years ago, and again this October, so some weeks later I was back for the awards and the annual photography show at the Riyadh International Convention Centre. Now, what’s inevitable on show days is that a steady stream of people approach with their iPhones to ask for appraisal (approval, actually) of their best photographs. That’s perfectly fine, but there’s a risk attached to being close to the large central stand where the winning photographs are on display. Sooner or later someone will approach with their iPhone, ask if I like the photograph being shown, and then point at one of the winning prints and ask “so why did that win?”

Ah yes, good question. “You remember seeing my photograph when you were judging?” The other judges get this on social media, from which I’m protected by my lack of Arabic, so I get it face to face. This is when I do my best to explain the difference between actual photography and competitions. Yes, that’s a very good photograph, and I liked it a lot, and it would be nice and kind if we could credit every good photograph that was entered. But, this is a competition, and whether it seems unfair or not, the basic laws of the competition universe are that there can be only one first prize. We can lighten the load a bit by having different categories, and by giving second and third awards and honourable mentions and all of that, but at the end of the day we have to choose one.

There are always several judges in any of these competitions, so we don’t always agree on the first round, but we do argue it through if necessary because there has to be a verdict. In all the competitions that I’ve judged, this verdict hasn’t been particularly difficult to reach. It’s not like Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, a long struggle to completely turn around everyone else’s opinion. Basically, the most imaginative and skilful photographers rise naturally to the surface, and as long as the judges are all experienced (they usually are), we reach broadly similar choices. The final selection is almost always among close contenders, and at that point it’s quite usual to think that any of a few images could be the ultimate winner. A pity, but there you are.

How does this help anyone win a competition? You’ll find many lists of advice on the internet about how to succeed, but I think I can distil it into one sentence: within the range of photography at which the competition aims, the judges are looking for something approaching originality, achieved by imagination and skill. All right, I’ve hedged my bets a few ways there. First, ‘within the range’. There are very different kinds of photo competition, and they function in very different ways. At one extreme are competitions that prioritise the prize money, at another those that confer prestige, at yet another those that campaign for principles. The Emirates-run HIPA, for example, launched itself with the unambiguous promise of being the ‘World’s Richest Photography Award’. That tells you something. The Prix de la Photographie, Paris is highly prestigious but offers a small monetary prize. World Press Photo is committed ‘to develop and promote quality visual journalism’. And so on. They attract very different entrants. So, before anything else, look at past winning entries and read what the competition says about itself and what it’s ‘mission statement’ is. Then decide if you like what you see, and next decide if you think you can do better. Otherwise, really don’t bother.

Next, ‘something approaching originality’. Vague, qualified, indecisive? All the things I don’t like? Well, the Holy Grail of any creative act is originality, but to be strict about it there’s nothing new under the sun. Yet, on the day and according to what you know and can remember, if it looks like something new that’s a pretty good start. The very last thing a judge wants to see is a copy of something that won last year. That’s doubly boring: it’s nothing new and it looks calculated…not very cleverly. I could go on, but you get the idea. And in the end, as I said, it’s a competition, so it’s primarily about winners (few) and losers (many), whatever anyone says. So the best picture doesn’t always win. That’s life.