Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography

The photography world is extremely controversial at the minute. The subjects of race, gender and pay are all important issues that must be discussed, but today I am going to focus on something different. Today we are going to be discussing submission fees, the contests and portfolio reviews that surround them. I am going to be looking at the pros and cons of submission fees and sharing my personal opinion on the subject based on my experiences. Some of you may agree, some of you may disagree.

Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Image by Fabien Blank

What are my views on fees as a business owner?

I would love a world where submission fees don’t exist, but I think for some companies like myself, it is an essential part of the event and before you sit there and explode, hear me out…

My Collective, The South West Collective, as it stands, is self-sufficient, but for over a year, I have not paid myself a single payment or a salary. In 2018 I launched the submission process for our first and debut exhibition “Visual Storytelling”, taking place in a disused shop along Torquay high street in February 2020. On this occasion, I was aware and conscious of the affordability of submissions and personally felt that charging anything above £10 was too much. I settled on a £5 fee for a maximum of 10 images. That was the only fee, no hidden extras or conditions – just £5. I also took the liberty of clarifying what the fees go towards, something I believe the major industry powers should do. With my show, I have stated that all the submission fees raised would go to the exhibition and covering the running costs for space and talks.

In this case, this exhibition would not have been possible to even plan without the financial support raised through submission fees, let alone host. I see so much negativity on twitter, so many people moaning about companies and fees, but yet, I hear no alternatives, no solutions. We moan about working for free and being asked us to work for free, but then expect opportunities or exhibitions to arise for free, where does that money come from? How do the people who plan, host and dedicate time to invigilate, advertise and run the space get paid? It just doesn’t work that way. You have to work hard for opportunities, sometimes even contribute yourself to progress, that’s the sad reality of the world you live in

Talking about exhibitions and competitions:

Now on one hand, as someone who graduated fairly recently who once had an overdraft a mere £10.00 away from being maxed out, I can understand young artists (and old) frustrations at having to pay £20, £30, £40, £50+ to enter certain competitions. I can understand that for everyone. Financially speaking, working as a photographer is tough. That is no secret, it’s a waiting game. When is the next client? The next project? The next publication? Photography very much seems to me to be a what-if.

As well as the financial side of making money out of your work, there is the financial side of getting your work out there. Some organisations seem to have competitions running almost every week, sometimes even multiple at once. These are all “pay to enter” and even more insulting, is that there are usually payment brackets for submissions. For example, paying £10 to enter ten images is fair, but a lot of these companies charge £10 for one image, then £50+ for a series of images, or 10 images, just to increase your chances for their own profit. Is this exploitation of photographers? Yes, but, also no – you have to take it with a pinch of salt because if you get chosen, you can gain a great deal from it.

I think a lot of photographers seem to forget that businesses need to make a profit, pay wages, pay bills and I think that shouldn’t be forgotten. It depends on the directors and people who run these organisations on policy, but I imagine that fees are an integral part of the cash flow throughout the year. I also know that regarding some of these contests, major publications and exhibitions are produced, which costs a lot of money, and you contribute and fund that. Perhaps if these companies stated what the fees go towards it might sway people’s opinions? My personal opinion is that if you don’t agree with these fees, don’t follow that company or enter their contests, don’t support them. Follow those who are trying to make a difference,like us.

Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Photo by Charles, taken from Unsplash.com

What are my views on it as a photographer a year on from university?

Regarding my own experiences, I have only ever had positive experiences regarding submission fees, which of course isn’t the same for everyone, but for me, it has helped me progress my confidence and career further than if I didn’t enter.

In 2018, fresh out of university I paid what I believe was $20 for a 10 image submission, to enter Fujifilm and Burn Magazines Young Photography Awards. To my surprise I was shortlisted for the $10,000 prize, which sadly, I didn’t win, but, even being considered for that gave me confidence and belief in my work. Knowing that my work was looked at by Broomberg and Chanarin, Mary Anne Golon and Fiona Rogers was a huge confidence boost and allowed me to believe that I could make a career from this.

However, as with life, there were pros and cons. I was “shortlisted”, but my work was not shared on any platform, nor did I receive any feedback. The people who were featured, hugely deserved the coverage, but my question is why shortlist someone but not contact them or share their work?

The second contest I entered was the 2019 British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain Prize. This particular prize was £10 for a single image submission, or £30 (I think) for a series of up to ten images. I was sceptical, I wouldn’t really class myself as a portrait photographer and didn’t agree with the fee structure at the time, but what did I have to lose? To my delight, alongside Collective Photographer Kate Wolstenholme, I was chosen as not only one of the 200 photographers to be published in the superb book by Hoxton Mini Press, but as one of the 100 overall winners, with my image being shown on JCDecaux boards across the United Kingdom, with one notably at London Liverpool Street train station,which was epic for me.

I would argue that for the £30 I spent, I received a huge return, great coverage and an experience that will last me a lifetime. My first proper published image in a book like that. I rate that a lot. I am hugely thankful for being chosen and given that opportunity, something I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t spend the time entering.

I saw what I got for that fee and as a business owner, I am totally cool with any spare money going to help the publication of the magazine, or wages to the staff who helped make the prize possible. Perhaps some of us are a little quick to judge and a little quick to criticise, especially those who perhaps have not had the chance to participate or be part of something like that and got something back for their fee?

Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Image by Philip Veater
Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Image by Charley Pangus

What about paid portfolio reviews?

Portfolio reviews are something I have never entered and probably never will enter, purely based on the education I had at university and the network around me, I don’t think paying for a review will benefit me, personally. There are, however, people who really value reviews and critiques, people who genuinely get inspired and gain a great deal from them, which is fantastic.

Regarding paying for a review, it’sa controversial subject and is debated fiercely on twitter. In my opinion, I don’t think paying for a review is a bad thing, but it depends on the person you’repaying to review your work. Are they qualified? Have they been in major prizes, exhibitions or publications? Do they teach photography or run a photographic organization and regularly view photographic work? these are things that need to be considered. It is utterly worthless paying a YouTuber who is self-taught to critique your work based on their subscriber count, unless of course, they are an extremely talented critical artist. Paid reviews should be based on the judge’s experience or CV. I am not being critical to those who are self-taught either, but I believe in order to teach and really inspire, you must have experience in the subject as a whole, not just F numbers and the RGB colours of your prints.

What about companies who always offer reviews for money?

I see many companies promoting portfolio reviews for several hundred pounds or dollars because they have a “star-studded line up of judges”, which is utter rubbish. What is the point of paying hundreds of pounds for someone to tell you some feedback in an email? There is no personal touch, no face-to-face conversation. How can a judge understand your emotions and working process in the work if you are not there? If you specifically want a certain photographer or individual to review your work, get in contact with them and ask them personally or offer to pay them for their time, don’t buy into something where you won’t gain a great deal back, especially if the work is a work in progress and not a finished product. It reminds me of the spam email when somebody tells you that your dead relative owes you £10,000,000 and you will receive it if you pay them an admin fee of £200 (I wish it was real).

Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Image curated by Hunters Race, courtesy of Unsplash

What about the Collectives stance on Reviews?

During our exhibition in February, I plan to host paid photography reviews alongside my wonderful Collective team of photographers, however, unlike the online courses, ours won’t be profiting or exploiting.

I am yet to decide a fee, but it will be affordable and more importantly,beneficial. We will invite people to the gallery space for a private review, approximately an hour and a half long, to sit and discuss their work, face to face. We will provide advice based on our opinions and own perspectives on photography and provide constructive feedback. I believe that paying for face to face reviews with several people who love and promote photography,is the correct way to offer reviews. This way, we as “judges” can truly get a feel for the work and the individual behind the camera, not via email for several hundred pounds. Not only this, we can discuss photography and meet new photographers who live in an area of the United Kingdom where art and photography are severely underrepresented. Lastly, any money raised from that will go straight back into our space, or, saved for our next show.

Let us promote positivity and have constructive conversations about these issues, not viscous insulting arguments.

I suppose to put my waffling to an end, it is up to you as an individual to make your own conscious decisions regarding fees and reviews, I and anyone else can only share their opinions. We must understand that each individual learns differently. I do not doubt that many people benefit from paid reviews or paid prizes. I think it is a matter of preference for the individual and their own societal views to whether they agree with those methods or not.

Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Image by Javier Allegue Barros

The resurgence of the Collective

I truly believe that there is a surge or resurgence of the photography Collective. Since I started The South West Collective, small organisations have popped up left right and centre, with an emphasis on sharing photography and more importantly highlighting its importance in contemporary society. We already see this happening with ourselves in the South West, with groups across Cornwall and with festivals such as Northern Eye Festival, The British Culture Archive, Open Eye Gallery, Fable and Folk, Photograd, Then There Was Us, Photo Scratch and Another Place Press,  who are really pushing for greater representation and change.

I urge you to support companies like us, companies who are run by photographers, for photographers. We are a company who want to share and promote not only photography, but all artforms. I will help you if you help me, it is as simple as that. If you retweet my work, I will retweet yours. If you share the Collectives articles and blogs, I will support you in any way I can.

I don’t want to sound like a charity appeal, but I cannot keep this Collective going without your help and support, whether it be sharing our articles, or buying film or products from us, it truly goes a long way. I would love to hear your thoughts about submission fees and reviews, please leave a comment down below!

Talking about Submission Fees, Contests and Portfolio Reviews in Photography
Photo by Neil Thomas

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Article by Collective Owner Samuel Fradley.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out a Collective interview with Photographer Donald Weber: https://thesouthwestcollective.co.uk/donald-weber-talks-about-photographing-the-radioactive-landscapes-of-chernobyl-and-fukushima/