Writing on photography

The Cash Cow of Photography

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.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • Totally agree not because I am a working photographer but because I studied photography in the 80s before digital photography and never found an in. I am also a woman and did not have extensive resources to go it alone. It has always been an exclusive pursue from my perspective. Digital photography made it more exclusive because if you had money (and a big ego) regardless of talent or training, you could be a photographer. Not really all that different from any other job these days that has become more accessible to more people so to cap the access you must pay to play. Great that you are trying to change that.

  • Thank you for saying something so eloquently that I have been thinking about a lot. A long time ago there was only Fotofest for paid reviews. At venues like the festival in Arles, they were informal but free. Now paid reviews are everywhere, and the attitude is that if one is a serious photographer, one will be present at several of these each year. Rather than look at work that is submitted in other ways, many reviewers wait for these events to “discover” new photography.

    With reviews everywhere, photographers have funded a delightful lifestyle for curators, publishers, gallery owners, etc. who get to jet from place to place, stay in great hotels, eat good food, and party with colleagues at our expense. Yes, they do the reviews, but as you say, it’s already their job to look at photography. Being a photographer has definitely become a rich person’s game, which I increasingly cannot afford. It’s ironic because I’ve been exhibited and published extensively and internationally without ever managing to make much of a profit. Now international venues, which in the past paid for shipping, insurance, and framing, want photographers to pay the expenses for their shows. Why is this happening? Because so many photographers are wealthy and willing to pay, or they are desperate and believe this “opportunity” will get their foot in the door. I recently turned down two international shows because I was expected to pay. One curator was quite gracious after repeatedly encouraging me to “not back out now,” but the other got downright nasty.

    I’m going to stop writing now and get on with my day but want to mention one more thing: book publishing. Photographers are almost always expected to fund their books (cover the publisher’s expenses) and take the risks. The publisher makes a profit if the book is successful.

  • I am always surprised with editors and magazines/websites/exhibitors asking for photographers to give their work for free or at stupidly low prices. Do they ask the printers or paper suppliers to give their products for free, or the newsagents not to take a cut of the sale price, or the journalists, editors, layouters, photoshoppers, stamp sellers, postmen, camera makers? Do they offer to print advertising for nothing, and do they themselves also contribute pro bono?

  • It seems that many of these applicants have only learned to take a picture, not make one. The continual flow of garbage is why “portfolio reviews” are so lucrative. No one wants to hear why their pictures suck, hey only want to fine tune their images to be like able, not good or great. Schools and most are afraid of delivering the hard truth to students, and reviewers are often too polite. When I review portfolios (for free) in he first statements I say are 1) You don’t read, do you? 2) you’re using the wrong camera. 3) you don’t look at your work! Then the turning point is 4) you need to separate “like” from “think”; aim more towards think, and then get back to me.
    It’s obvious, but most don’t want to hear that. Then they go to the next guy hoping for kind words and a pat on the back. Who really wants to work at it?

  • A refreshing take on this money spinning business. Photography has now become a particularly undervalued creative process on a professional level, although it still retains all the egos that it used to and that is the vehicle that drives all these competitions to charge for entries etc, to massage those egos, and the entrants fall for it. The advent of digital and micro stock agencies diluted the value of photography in the market place, and with that came the ease through the Internet to reach a global network of photographers eager to pay for their work to be uploaded, looked at and judged, it’s all clever stuff, you can’t knock the business model, but you can blame the ego, and it is the same for portfolio reviews. I have seen some appalling images on websites and the like with comments of praise attached, the nature of art is of course it is subjective but in photography there are some benchmarks that show the image is badly considered, badly shot or composed or poorly processed etc, but the masses continue to forge ahead with their heads buried deeply in the sand!

Writing on photography