Jida Choura, The Syrian Memorial
Photo: Lewis Bush
I’ve been working for a while on compiling a list of photography grants, competitions and festivals that don’t charge or only charge small amounts for submissions. This is an ongoing and far from complete project and one which will rely to some extent on submissions and updates coming from the people who use it, so feel free to get in touch with anything you think should or should not be on there.
I’ve had the desire to create this list for some time, and the feeling has mounted almost every time I’ve submitted work for something. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve made my way through a lengthy online form to find, usually hidden away at the bottom or at the final stage, a request for an exorbitant ‘administration fee’ in order to complete my application. At this point the exasperation of half an hour of wasted on form filling and image resizing is almost enough to get me to cough up the requested money, despite an invariable lack of transparency, and a strong sense that the last thing this money is probably going to be spent on is administration (how many paperclips can you buy for $70?).
I’ve also come to question more and more those situations where photographers are essentially expected to pay for access, or to pay someone to do their job. Portfolio reviews seem to me the most obvious and troubling example of this, a situation where we pay to jump the queue and go and see an editor or a curator who might be able to help us with work. In participating in this we are, in effect, paying a premium just to talk to a person whose job it already is to look at photography. The perceived competition and difficulty of a career in photography drives us to pay for a service which is completely artificial. To me that makes no sense and this and a range of other experiences have left me with the mounting feeling that to some organisations photographers are not much more than cash cows to be milked for profit.
It’s funny, because I hear so often that there is no money in photography, no budgets to pay for articles, or exhibitions, or jobs. And yet at the same time I see vast sums being spent on photography all around me, by collectors buying photographs, by hobbyists buying silly equipment, and by cash strapped professionals trying to give their work a leg up in a desperately competitive market, hoping that it will pay off down the line. Do the maths on most fee charging competitions and the take can seem pretty enormous. In 2014 there were reportedly 4,193 submissions entered by 1,793 photographers to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. At a current fee of £27 per photograph that would suggest the prize raises something in the region of £113,000 even before you tote up the ticket price to visitors and whatever opaque figure is gifted by Taylor Wessing LLP as part of their sponsorship arrangements. Of course there is money in photography, but as in every field the real issues are who has it, and more precisely what did they do to get it?
I work a great deal in museums and galleries and so I know well that organisations need to find ways to raise money to fund their activities, something which has undoubtedly become more difficult in recent years with dwindling funding for the arts in the UK. But to my mind any organisation that is overly reliant on artists and photographers to raise money for it relies on a questionable (and perhaps unsustainable) model. Equally the tired excuses that charging fees helps to filter out weaker work and keep standards high simply don’t really hold water, instead all these practices filter are those with money from those who don’t, and all they do is to exacerbate what has always been a problem with photography, that it is an expensive activity which is closed to those without the material or cultural resources to commit to it.
From a technological perspective the problem of photography’s capital intensive nature is at least starting to break down, as cameras and the means to disseminate images become ever cheaper, and people come to own them almost by accident through their ownership of products like phones and tablets. But culturally that break down seems to be inspiring a closing of ranks and a desire to make photography as an industry more exclusive through arbitrary financial means. This is something I just can’t stand. Nor can I abide the professional sneakiness that seems endemic in professional photography, the way people keep their cards and contacts close to their chest and avoid sharing information with friends and colleagues for fear that someone else’s success might somehow come at their own expense. If you have any belief or confidence in your own work then it makes no difference who is in the stall next door.
So if these things bother you as they do me, take a stand against these things. Shun those competitions which ask for an unreasonable return. Use this list, share it, and contribute back to it.