Who Should Count as a ‘Student’ in Photo Contests?

Sony World Photography Awards

The Sony World Photography Awards is arguably the most prestigious and largest photo contest. The 2024 edition is open to entries and some of its rules are under fire.

Over at Fstoppers, Kim Simpson writes that the Sony World Photography Awards’ Student category doesn’t adequately cater to all photography students. At the heart of the issue is that the contest has age limits in the category, preventing photography students over the age of 30 from entering.

Specifically, the Student category is open to anyone aged from 18 to 30 years old who is in a full-time photography program. Students answer a set brief with five to 10 images, and the judges will select up to 10 shortlisted photographers. An overall winner receives the “Student Photographer of the Year” title, a massive boon to a budding career, and a significant prize package of Sony digital imaging equipment worth €30,000 for them and their school.

Winning the competition is a huge deal for a photographer, and Simpson argues that not all photography students fit neatly into the box the World Photography Organization and the Sony World Photography Awards have crafted.

“A student competition should extend beyond age brackets and celebrate diverse experiences, perspectives, and creative journeys. By imposing an age limit, the competition inadvertently perpetuates a narrow definition of what it means to be a student photographer. Photography is not confined to a specific age group, and the restrictive policies risk sidelining the rich contributions that mature students can bring to the table,” Simpson writes.

Simpson herself became a photography student in her late twenties after she had already entered the field professionally. “The exclusionary nature of these competitions not only affects individuals who, like me, ventured into photography later in life, but also undermines the diversity of perspectives that could contribute to the richness of the artistic discourse within the student community,” the photographer explains.

As an aside, it seems unfair that someone who has been working professionally in the field can enter a student competition, but there is seemingly no restriction about that in the Sony World Photography Awards.

For those who have aged out of the Student category, their only option is to enter the Open category, which is full of amateurs and professionals of all skill and experience levels. Further, the Open category winner receives $5,000 in cash rather than the bundle of Sony imaging equipment for the student and their educational institution.

For Simpson, this is not a truly viable alternative for older students. “To even the playing field, student photography competitions should consider adopting more flexible age policies. Eliminating the upper age limit would acknowledge the varied life trajectories of students,” she concludes.

While it is far too late for the organizers to change their policy for this year’s competition, it is something that the World Photography Organization may want to consider for future editions of the very popular Sony World Photography Awards.

However, is Simpson making a mountain of a molehill? And further, should every category in all photo contests be for everyone to enter? Of course not. Reasonable rules restrict who can enter photo contests. That is nothing new.

Simpson has raised some excellent points and made a strong case that a “photography student” can be of any age, whether a traditional student in their late teens or early twenties or a non-traditional student in their thirties or forties. Undoubtedly, a 46-year-old photography student is just as much of a legitimate student as someone fresh out of high school.

Further, as Simpson says, allowing students across a more comprehensive age range to enter a photo contest will increase the diversity of perspectives in the entrant pool, which benefits the competition at large.

The Sony World Photography Awards argues at the top of its Student category page that it is “providing a platform for photography students worldwide.” If that’s the contest’s primary objective, its age restrictions are counterproductive.

However, if there are other concerns, perhaps the rules make sense. While Simpson argues that pursuing equality would mean removing the age cap from the student category, I think equality could be understood differently.

The same expanded life experience that Simpson believes adds to the student photography competition, I’d argue, unfairly disadvantages younger students who have had less time to gain important perspectives and, perhaps more importantly, literally have had fewer chances to take photos and enhance their skills.

If the primary, or only, concern is showcasing the most diverse range of skills and narratives, then that’s what the Open category is for. The Sony World Photography Awards has different goals for its student category, which is perfectly reasonable.

Simpson is right that photography students aren’t exclusively aged 18 to 30. By operating within this constraint, the Sony World Photography Awards are inherently exclusionary — as is every photo contest, as they all have rules that prevent some people from entering.

The question is not really if the rules should be more inclusive, but precisely what the intention of the student category is, and what the organizers hope to achieve. How the World Photography Organization answers those fundamental questions will determine the most suitable rules and regulations.

Besides, I am way less concerned with the age bracket than that the competition is restricted to those undertaking a “full-time photography program,” which must be a formalized photography course/credit/module/foundation within a diploma/Bachelor of Arts/Master of Arts curriculum. If the goal is inclusivity, a noble albeit always somewhat unattainable aim, the competition should open its student category to part-time students.

Not everyone can afford to enter a full-time college program. Frankly, I’m more interested in seeing the diversity of perspectives that are left out because a part-time student doesn’t count than I am about older full-time students. Further, someone who must juggle improving their educational goals against maintaining a job and possibly raising a family may benefit significantly from the attractive prize pool.

There is no perfect solution and no set of rules that will satisfy everyone. However, that doesn’t mean the Sony World Photography Awards shouldn’t always strive to improve. Does that mean changing how it operates its student category?

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