Let me ask you something. If you found a cosmetic surgeon on the internet with an impressive list of awards to his name, booked in for a new pair of lips (or whatever the hell people are getting done to their faces these days), and came out looking like caricature of Donald Duck, you’d have a few four letter words to throw around, right?
But the thing is, who would you throw them at? Sure, it was a pretty crappy job from a surgeon who, in your opinion, would be better suited to filling helium balloons at kids parties judging by the way he pumped that syringe. However, that surgeon never lied about those awards you were so impressed about. A quick internet search will reveal that they’ve received them from real companies, who have real websites, and probably awards of their own. So do you only have yourself to blame?
In my opinion, no. You can’t blame yourself for not knowing that some of those awards were issued by companies who have no expertise in cosmetic surgery, have no authority to judge the professionals in that field, and who might just want the prestige - and the income - that goes hand in hand with having their name on an award. Now, apply this to photography, and you’ve got an idea of what my world is like.
These companies will ask photographers to pay to enter their ‘competitions’, pay to attend their awards ceremonies and pay to have custom certificates, stickers or logos designed to smear all over their marketing campaigns. We do all the leg work, too. We phone up our past clients, or even friends and family, to vote for us, all so that we can win a runner up prize of ‘Best Newcomer’, ‘Best Black and White Photography’ or ‘Best in Region’.
As if that wasn’t enough to ruin the facade, let’s talk about legitimacy. Literally anyone can set up one of these awards. Joe Photo from down the road can just as easily dole out awards as a big London magazine, giving carte blanche to scammers. Although I’m not accusing anyone, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is for real, as there’s no regulatory body.
Secondly, some voting systems allow anyone to vote, as many times as they like. If I had a tonne of spare time, I could spend the day in my underwear, voting for myself again and again until I turned into some sort of voting machine-cyborg and ascended into an alternate dimension where you could only say the word ‘vote’ and online ballots were used as currency. It would be monotonous but, hey, I’d have an award to show for my efforts.
The final circle of award-hell is the clique-iness. These companies prey on new photographers, urging them to become a part of the ‘in crowd’ who boast a series of accolades to their names. If you’re not an awards junkie, you’re an outcast. The phrase, ‘you can’t sit with us’ springs to mind. Have you heard about Avi? He doesn’t have the [insert pointless award here].
Despite what the beginning of this blog post suggest, I’m not comparing myself to a cosmetic surgeon, or any kind of doctor - I can’t even cure the cold I’ve had for the last three weeks, let alone fix someone’s self esteem - but when I first started photographing people’s mugs professionally, I was a fresh-out-of-the-dark-room newbie who thought my work needed affirmation from a source other than my clients. To me, at that time, having an award meant a professional recognition of quality, and a way to say to potential clients, ‘hey, I’m actually good at what I do’. However, after realising that awards don’t take good photos, I decided to drop out of the race and pour my heart and soul into my work, rather than the buzz surrounding it.
I’m going to clarify a few things before ending this post:
● I’m not saying photographers who enter these awards are doing wrong. Some of us participate in the awards system because it seems like the only way to get an edge over competitors. Some do it to build a network. Some do it for the sheer joy of shaking someone’s hand and receiving a certificate. I’m just saying, that’s not me.
● Not all awards are a sham.
● I can’t think of a third point. But three is the magic number. So let’s have some gin.
My sage advice for anyone looking for a wedding photographer? Browse the portfolios. I know, it takes time. And although you'd rather be in bed watching videos of cats pushing glasses off counters while looking defiantly at their owners, this extra bit of care will save you the heartache of having fat lips. I mean a bad wedding photographer… cheers!