International Photo Contest Under Fire for Allowing Judges to Enter and Win

Pet Photographer of the Year Awards

The International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards, hosted by Unleashed Pet Photography Education, has attracted criticism ahead of the competition revealing its winners next month because of its rules that allow judges to enter and win prizes.

The Contest’s Rules and Prizes

PetaPixel received a frustrated email from a reader that described concerning aspects of the International Pet Photographer of the Year’s rules, including that the contest’s judges were not only eligible to enter but also could win prizes and the coveted title, “International Pet Photographer of the Year.”

The competition does not have a particularly large prize pool from a monetary value perspective but participants must pay to enter.

Entry Fees

Annual Unleashed Pet Photography Education subscribers receive one free entry while lifetime subscribers get two. All others must pay $25 to enter their first image.

Pet Photographer of the Year Awards
Entry fee information for the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards 2023

When entering multiple images, there is a discount. People can enter up to 20 photos; at that point, each shot costs $16 for a total entry fee of $320.

PetaPixel asked Unleashed Pet Photography Education how many people entered this year’s contest, and the organizers said that the competition had 2,299 entries.

It is impossible to determine how much revenue that number of entries generates because some people had a free entry and multiple entrants received a discounted entry fee. However, even assuming an average cost of $10 to $15 per image, which is slightly conservative, the contest could have generated nearly $35,000.

Judges Get Two Free Entries

Unleashed Pet Photography Education co-owner and International Pet Photographer of the Year Award co-organizer Charlotte Reeves tells PetaPixel that each judge received two free entries in exchange for participating, although Reeves says that some judges opted to pay to enter additional images. She also says that only some judges elected to enter the contest despite having free entries.


The general format of the competition is relatively straightforward. There are five categories: portrait, action, creative, pets and people, and documentary. These five winners get $250 plus a trophy, certificate, and one-year memberships to Unleashed Education and the Professional Photography Business Network.

The overall winner, the highest-scoring image from all categories, receives $500, a trophy and certificate, and private mentoring sessions with Charlotte Reeves, Craig Turner-Bullock, and Mark Rossetto.

By the way, Turner-Bullock owns Unleashed Pet Photography Education and organizes the photo contest alongside Reeves. They are both allowed to enter the contest but are ineligible to win prizes or be named finalists. If their images are the highest scorers, they will be replaced by the next-highest scorer.

Reeves is based in Australia, and Turner-Bullock is in New Zealand. The contest is run through the duo’s company, Unleashed Education Pty Ltd., which is registered in Australia. Per Australian contest regulations, the competition does not meet the prize requirements to need a permit.

Pet Photographer of the Year Awards
The highlighted text from the contest’s rules shows that judges are allowed to enter.

Is it Unusual for Judges to Enter Contests?

When PetaPixel contacted Unleashed Pet Photography Education to ask about the contest’s questionable rules, the competition’s finalists had already been announced, and sure enough, some of the competition’s 16 judges had won places among the finalists.

There is no reason to single any specific judge out, as they followed the competition’s rules, as problematic as they may be. However, readers are free to cross-reference the list of judges and the galleries of finalists.

Reeves says that multiple competitions allow judges to enter and win. Reeves claims that competitions such as the Australian Photographic Prize (APP), IRIS Awards, The Societies of Photographers, ICON Awards, and the International Portrait Masters Awards all allow judges to enter.

“There may also be other competitions that allow this. I don’t believe this is as rare as our dissenters think it is,” Reeves tells PetaPixel over email.

“We simply do not see any problem with running the competition in a way that is industry standard for us, when it’s also clearly stated in our rules,” Reeves continues.

It is worth pushing back on this point a bit. While the eligibility of judges to enter and win prizes is clearly stated in the contest’s rules, it is not something especially common. It seems evident to many members of PetaPixel’s team that judges should not be allowed to enter contests.

The situation highlights that people should always read a contest’s rules and terms and conditions before entering, especially when an entry fee is involved.

Reminiscent of a Famous Contest Scandal

The drama surrounding the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards also reminds PetaPixel of Sal Cincotta winning numerous awards in the Shutterfest conference’s popular photo contest in 2017.

As PetaPixel editor-in-chief Jaron Schneider wrote for Imaging Resource in 2017, “Normally winners of a private photo competition aren’t big news, but the identity of the winner in this case is the source of community uproar: Sal Cincotta, the owner of Shutterfest, just won the grand prize and 11 top-three finishes across the total of 17 categories in the Shutterfest Image Competition.”

Schneider continues, “For many who have entered photography contests before, this result felt wrong. Members of the popular subreddit r/photography were vocal about their opinions on the owner of a contest winning the contest. One user said that ‘Considering that they were taking money off of people — per photo — it looks like a load of people just got mugged,’ while another said that regardless of the legality or rules of the competition, ‘It’s super shady. The appearance of impropriety alone is trouble enough.'”

While Cincotta’s response, which has since been deleted from Facebook, only made the situation worse, he was not the only person involved with the contest who entered. Multiple judges involved in that contest maintained that the situation was fair and that the judging was impartial.

At that time, Imaging Resource spoke with Roslyn J. Kitchen, an attorney from the promotion law firm of Cohen Silverman Rowan LLP. The firm provides counsel to companies concerning promotion and marketing legal issues.

“It is absolutely standard in our industry, and I believe in every single contest I have ever been counsel to that if anyone has any direct or indirect involvement in that contest and thus could potentially unfairly influence the contest in any way, then they are not permitted to enter or win. This assures that the objectivity, fairness, and integrity of the sponsor’s contest is upheld,” Kitchen said in 2017.

To reiterate, Cincotta won his photo contest — Reeves and Turner-Bullock can enter but not win their contest. That is an important distinction. However, the optics of the two situations are not that different.

Pet Photographer of the Year Awards
About the International Pet Photography Awards

What is Wrong with Judges Entering Contests?

While the International Pet Photographer of the Year organizers do not believe that there is any issue with judges entering contests and being eligible to win, it is worth briefly discussing what the potential problems are and why so many skill-based competitions prohibit judges from entering.

Imagine a judge who entered the Action category in the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards. While that judge will not see their own image, they will see the pictures submitted by their competitors. Further, judges will see images entered by their fellow judges. There is reason — and opportunity — for a judge to give themselves a better chance to win by artificially lowering the scores of other images.

For reasons that will become clear later, it should be emphaized that simply outlining a way in which a judge could manipulate a contest in which they are also an entrant is not the same as suggesting that any specific judge will actually do so.

The rules also state that judges “can” abstain from judging an image if they feel they cannot do so impartially. However, they are not required to do so. This is not a problem unique to the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards; there are many ways in which impartiality is a moving target for various contests.

If a regular person enters a contest and loses to one of the judges, it would be reasonable for the loser to wonder if the deck had been stacked against them. Even if nothing shady occurred, the optics are bad, and the door is left open for speculation.

Bias on behalf of judges can occur entirely by accident, too. Unconscious biases are a problem that many rules and regulations in society try to contend with to varying degrees of success.

There is no reason to believe that any of the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards judges did, or would ever, act to further their own self-interest. However, there is no doubt that the contest’s rules would enable such improprieties.

The Judging Process

Concerning the competition’s judging process, Reeves has explained to PetaPixel exactly how it works.

All the judging is completed online through a judging portal. Each judge has a private login and sees a thumbnail display of the entries available to score. The judges can go through them in order or jump around, rating only the images they feel best suited to evaluate.

“For example, equine photographers are encouraged to prioritize horse images,” Reeves explains.

Each judge goes through “comprehensive judges’ training, with instructions and guidance about scoring and providing written feedback, specific to our competition but also very much industry standard,” Reeves adds.

If a judge has entered, they will not see their own images in the portal.

“If a judge recognizes an image and feels they cannot judge it impartially, they may abstain from judging that image, at which point it disappears from their judging pool,” Reeves continues.

She explains that judges score images on a 50 to 100 scale based on the competition’s judging criteria. Once the image is judged, it disappears from their portal but remains available for other judges to view and score. The entry is finalized once an image has received five scores from five judges and two pieces of written feedback.

“Our judges were chosen for their ability to be impartial and provide professional judging and feedback. They are all very well respected in professional photography circles. They dedicate hours of their time and use their extensive specialist expertise in this field, and we are so grateful for having them on board,” Reeves explains.

Rules Worthy of Being Questioned

While this article is critical of the International Pet Photographer of the Year competition’s rules at large, that should not be construed as criticism levied at any of the judges. PetaPixel respects Reeves for her willingness to speak and believes that she and Turner-Bullock are acting in good faith.

That said, it is still fair to question the organization’s adamant defense of its problematic rules.

“Judges being able to enter awards is new to this competition but is not unique in the photography competition world,” Reeves explains. The competition was previously hosted by a different organization, The Pet Photographers Club.

“In fact, many professional photography competitions in many different countries and also internationally, also allow their judges to enter. They use the same anonymous judging system we do,” Reeves says.

Reeves also provided the following statement, which PetaPixel believes is important to include in full:

In other competitions where the organizers are the only judges, or where the judging process is not anonymous, obviously it would be wrong for the judges to be able to enter with the aim of winning.

However, this is not how our competition is set up.

Our judges entering our awards is no different to photographers, who also happen to be judges in other competitions, entering our awards.

Or photographers who are of a master level, who maybe have never judged, entering our awards.

There will always be amazing photographers entering professional awards and whether they happen to be judging or not, has no bearing on the outcome.

There is absolutely no motivation for other judges to score their co-judges any more highly, even if they did recognize the image as one of theirs. The entrant never knows which judges have judged their image.

Moreover, if they were interested in being biased, they could do the same with any other image they recognized from any friend they had who had entered.

Therefore, questioning the system and rules around judges entering, is the same as directly questioning the integrity of the judges, and is not something we are okay with.

We hope that this (rather long) explanation has helped to clear up any confusion around the judging process and made it clear why it is not unethical to have our judges entering our awards.

We applaud the judges who did become finalists. Isn’t it great to have people who really know their stuff judging and providing feedback on your images?

And to the other finalists, what a great feeling to know that your images are on par with (and in some cases, score higher than) those who are judging the competition!

I’ll end this by saying — thank you so much to all of our wonderful judges — we appreciate you, your time and talent in making this competition possible.

Reeves adds that many of the people she has seen complaining about the competition are based in Europe, “where laws or rules surrounding competitions are different, or where cultural differences may apply.”

She also observes that many people who are complaining did not enter the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards.

Before moving on, it is important to highlight this portion of Reeves’s statement: “Therefore, questioning the system and rules around judges entering, is the same as directly questioning the integrity of the judges, and is not something we are okay with.”

This sentiment came up again in response to one of PetaPixel’s specific questions about the competition’s rules dictating that judges “can” abstain from voting when they recognize the work of a fellow judge but are not required to do so.

“In questioning this process, it actually becomes a case of questioning the judge’s integrity, rather than an issue with judges being able to enter,” Reeves tells PetaPixel multiple times in slightly different ways, including once in bold text.

PetaPixel‘s editorial team disagrees with the notion that questioning a competition’s rules and judging process is the same as questioning an individual judge’s integrity.

It is easy to understand the defensive posture and appreciate that Reeves wants to protect the judges in the competition. Another good way to protect the contest’s judges from criticism, if any were being lobbed their way, would be not opening the door for anyone to question the competition’s fairness in the first place.

Quelling Dissent

It is also worth adding that the competition’s terms and conditions state:

“Entrants contacting judges directly to discuss or dispute their scores or feedback is not permitted and may result in disqualification. All scores are final, and no disputes will be entered into. Entrants making defamatory comments or speaking in a way that questions the integrity of the awards, the judging process, the judges, the organizers, or any other aspect of the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards, including the work of other entrants, will be disqualified and/or banned from entering future awards. The only exception to this is by communicating personal concerns through this link.”

Reeves explains that this sort of condition is common to all contests.

She also says that the organization, as of last week, had received just two messages through its official contact form about the contest’s rules. Otherwise, much of the blowback has been on social media. Reeves claims that fake accounts created some of the angry messages.

Aside from a couple of comments that directly attacked entrants, which is not okay for anyone to do no matter what they think about a contest or its rules, the organization has not deleted any critical comments. Further, Reeves says she has personally replied to every dissenting comment on social media. The competition has yet to feel the need to disqualify any entrants.

Pet Photographer of the Year Awards

New Management Aims to Elevate the Competition

“Although it is growing all the time, the pet photography community is still relatively small compared to many other genres. We are so privileged to have these judges who are at the very top of their game in this field, who have agreed to join our judging panel. If we did not allow our judges to enter, we may lose some very important talent on the judging panel,” Reeves explains.

She continues that she and Turner-Bullock aim to build upon the work of their predecessors and make the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards a smash hit.

“We made many changes to the competition to help make the judging process more transparent, and bring the awards into line with some of the other highly professional competitions in the world. We also brought in 16 diverse specialist pet photography judges, with a fairly equal split between the major areas where pet photography as a genre is most popular — Oceania, North America, and Europe. Our judges also have specialist experience in equine, cat, and exotic pet photography,” says Reeves.

She adds that while the awards and prizes are valuable, many competitors will find that the written feedback that every entrant receives on their images is even more important. This is new to the competition this year, and Reeves hopes the feedback will help photographers grow and improve.

“This is something that we feel makes this competition stand out and something that we are very proud of offering — despite the incredible amount of time it takes our judges to do on 2299 entries!” Reeves says. She also tells PetaPixel that of the 2,299 entries, 1,126 images scored 75 or higher will receive a Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum award when the final results are released next month.

“We have poured our hearts, souls, time, and money into this project over the last six months, and we are truly dedicated to making these awards the best they can be for many years into the future, with plans to introduce an accreditation program next year,” Reeves concludes.

Changes Moving Forward

A couple of days after PetaPixel received Reeves’s response, which has been detailed above, she followed up with a new statement that was sent to the contest’s mailing list.

“We made the decision that next year, we will still allow judges to enter, however they will not be eligible to be finalists, or win. We stand by the integrity of our rules, judging system and judges, and have only made this decision to better serve the customs and expectations of the wider international community of pet photographers,” Reeves tells PetaPixel alongside the email.

“It’s a compromise made to keep the peace and to ensure our little community remains united,” she continues.

The full email sent to the mailing list can be seen below:

Pet Photographer of the Year Awards

Conflicts of Interest

The intention to adjust the rules is a great step. One does not need to question the integrity of the judges to see that this is a better situation that is fairer to anyone who enters.

The change also seems like a good compromise from another perspective. Judges can still share their work with the larger community and receive feedback from their fellow judges.

After all, Reeves explains that beyond the prizes, the feedback people get is a vital part of the contest and part of what makes Unleashed Pet Photography’s new stewardship an improvement for the competition’s entrants.

Despite the assertion to the contrary, looking at the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards and its current judging rules is not an indictment of any judge’s integrity. Asking questions is not the same as passing judgment. Besides, the questions were about the rules, not the judges.

Again, it is worth noting that portrait photographer Sal Cincotta was heavily criticized for entering and winning his own photography competition. It is in the best interest of all competitions to remove any possible signs of impropriety so that everyone who enters feels as though they are being treated fairly.

If Major League Baseball rules allowed team managers to also be umpires, people could recognize the conflict of interest and how such a rule would introduce doubt as to the quality of the calls that manager makes behind the plate, even if they actually were a great umpire. Further, questioning a rule that allows a judge to benefit from their decisions is not the same as suggesting that the judge lacks integrity.

Quite frankly, the sidestepping defense proffered by Reeves on behalf of herself and Bullock-Turner and the strawman she built served only to obfuscate the actual issue — the rules are problematic. That said, they are changing.

In the meantime, the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards will undoubtedly feature incredible winning photos this year. Looking at the finalists suggests as much. Many amazing photographers entered beautiful images into the contest, including some from the contest’s judges.

Concerns about contest rules aside, pet photography is worth celebrating. Plenty of aspects of the International Pet Photographer of the Year Awards are also worth praising, including regulations that prevent AI-generated images from winning prizes and rules that help protect animals from dangerous behavior on behalf of their caretakers.

Nobody is perfect and everybody makes errors in judgment. Some strong disagreement aside, Reeves and Turner-Bullock are talented photographers, good educators, and people who are trying their best to make sure that pet photography gets the attention that it deserves.