Photography competitions garner hundreds of thousands of entries per year and give away about as much money to a small subset of winners. But when those competitions are judged by well-known photographers —which is expected of any prestigious competition — this industry is small enough that it is mathematically impossible to avoid the possibility of a conflict of interest arising.
I want to make the argument that conflicts of interest are impossible to avoid, but how a competition handles them tells you a lot about how that organization is run and if you should trust them with your money.
Two separate competitions have dealt with accusations of impropriety in the last month and each responded to those accusations differently.
The first situation arose at LensCulture and its 2022 Street Photography Awards. One of the judges, Matt Stuart, selected a member of the photo collective he is part of as a winner, Eleonore Simon. This particular award is one selected by a single judge for a single photographer, which made his choice hard for some entrants to believe was not influenced by his personal relationship.
Stuart admits he recognized her work in the competition but maintains he wasn’t preferential to her because of their relationship. In his defense, he makes one interesting point:
“Street photography is a small community, so not personally knowing entrants and their work in street photography competitions is almost impossible,” he told PetaPixel’s Lisa Marie Segarra in an email.
I agree with him. Even the broad photography space is a small enough community that judges who engage with that community are very likely to avoid a personal relationship with some of them.
What I don’t agree with is how this situation was handled. LensCulture ignored repeated requests for comment to explain how judging at the competition is managed. Basically, the organization put its hands over its ears and closed its eyes and just stayed that way until the situation blew over.
Years ago, I spoke with a lawyer regarding the time that a prominent wedding photographer won his own photography competition. That lawyer told me that as a matter of industry practice, anyone involved with the competition who could even be perceived as unfairly influencing the outcome would implicate the objectivity and veracity of the contest. While she was speaking about a photographer entering a competition he runs, I think that general sentiment still applies to this particular situation.
In short, Stuart should never have put himself into a position where he would have to defend even the appearance of impropriety or, at the very least, the competition should have stepped in to prevent it.
The second situation is very similar, but how the organization reacted is very different.
A photographer named Clementine Schneidermann was shortlisted by a panel of judges for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. One of those judges, Sian Davey, has a personal relationship with Schneidermann through their collective, The Emmas.
In contrast to how LensCulture reacted, a representative of the competition quickly responded to PetaPixel’s request for comment on the situation and explained that in this case, the judge recused herself from the selection process.
“In line with our guidelines for the judging panel, which state that any relationship is declared to the Chair, we can confirm that Sian Davey recognized Clementine Schneidermann’s work (the Prize is judged on an anonymous basis) and flagged that she knew her,” a spokesperson explains.
“Sian then stepped back from the discussion about the photographer’s entry. The Judging process is a collaborative decision by the panel of five judges who reached a majority decision on the shortlist.”
Recusing oneself from a judging process on the basis of a personal conflict was the right thing to do and explaining that plainly and openly is also the right move. While the competition should have made this announcement plain and clear to all entrants during the announcement of the shortlist, in this case I’m willing to say better late than never.
If you are interested in entering a photography competition, many of which require some form of entry fee, I do encourage you to go with the ones who have a history of doing and saying the right thing when it comes to conflicts of interest.
While as I said, I agree with Stuart that it is impossible to avoid knowing every photographer in a niche space and conflicts are bound to arise, I think just carrying forward as if that conflict can be ignored is not the right call, sends the wrong message, and leaves a sour taste in the mouth of others who entered the competition.
This story is from PetaPixel’s weekly curated newsletter, Clipped Highlights.
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Image credits: Header photo by Alex Suprun.