If Clichés Are So Bad, Why Do So Many of Them Win Contests?

Photo editor Michael Davis on why clichés win photo contests:

I think one of the dynamics at play is that work that was recognized in the past triggers interest in similar work in the present. In other words, we have this library of images in our minds and when we see images that are similar to the images that we think are great, there’s an association, a connection that is positive. These are derivative images. But instead of being a negative aspect, these images get elevated, often to the highest awards and often without realizing we’re just awarding what worked in the past.

That’s the nature of the cliché: I’m photographing a subject that was deemed good in the past, therefore the photo I make today will also be good. As a judge, the perspective is: This type of photo has been recognized in the past, therefore we should recognize it today.

His advice for photographers looking to break free of subjects that have been beaten shot to death? Do the hard work of researching prior work, and think about breaking new ground in either the subject, story, or storytelling method.

If clichés are so bad, why do they win contests? [Michael Davis]

Image credit: Cliche by Tom Newby Photography

  • Scott Mains

    So judges really are to blame then? 
    By awarding what has been done before, they can limit the scope of what can be done differently. Awarding the same type of work and derivatives from it allow the cliches to be ridden to death, so photographers become lazy, sticking to a convention that is ‘accepted’ by the panel. 

  • Focx

    Consensus is achieved in the middle/top of the bell curve… that’s why a lot of landscape photography today produces a nice, warm feeling and “aah” but isn’t really interesting or new or even “timeless”.

  • A.Dragos

    The cliches are winning contests because they are more accessible to the jury and the people which are voting. If the photo is most ”cliche”-likely and it has been seen a lot in other photographs, then will be more appreciated by the most of the people..

  • Zefanya Hanata

    What is good in the past can be good in the present. What is bad in the past probably can’t ever be good.

  • Peter Duke
  • Mrbeard

    curious, as someone who attends a local camera club this has been a dilemma troubling me for some time, well thought out creative photos get nowhere in the competitions but cliched shots like mentioned, seem to scoop the prizes. i thought it was an age thing as the judges are usually older/retired men and they were still thinking like they did when they used film before the rapid progress of digital photography in the last 10 years

  • Shayaksen

    Well, another way to look at it is that you are on your own photographic journey, so clicking cliches is necessary to check off of your list. Once, you’ve done your fair bit of cliches, you would get bored and want to move on.

  • Dean Lawrence

    A quality image is worthwhile regardless of the subject matter. There’s nothing wrong with breathing new life into tired material. 

  • Chicheimages

    can someone point to a picture that won that is cliche?

  • Michael Darnton

    Contests never indicate anything more than the lowest common denominator of appeal and understanding, and nothing at all about art. That’s why the French impressionist painters had to make their own exhibitions rather than being accepted for the ones that already existed.