Competitions Are For Horses

About three years ago, just as my photography journey was starting to feel like it had something more serious to offer, I asked a friend whether he entered photography competitions.

‘Competitions are for horses not artists’ he replied.

Even then my friend was an ‘accomplished photographer’ by virtue of having been published several times and shown in a number of exhibitions (he is even more accomplished now), so I was surprised by his answer. I thought a lot about it at the time but haven’t given it much thought again until this evening.

It’s an interesting metaphor. Not only does it perfectly highlight the, at best incongruous, and at worst blatant hypocrisy of trying to objectively judge an entirely subjective medium, it also highlights the demeaning nature of such efforts.

Horses, while noble and beautiful are still just animals. They may well experience consciousness, who can tell (heck I can’t even prove that the person sitting opposite me is experiencing consciousness), and people, through their relationship and bond with them, may have found inspiration and insight into the meaning of life as a result. But to the best of my knowledge, no horse as yet has composed a beautiful symphony, written a sonnet or carved stone in a way that makes you cry.

Horse racing is base. Art is not.

This is the image I entered. I thought it was pretty good but apparently it's just an also ran.

This is the image I entered. I thought it was pretty good but apparently it's just an also ran.

So if that’s the case why am I sat on a train now, on my way home from a relatively minor photography exhibition and competition in which over 150 images were shortlisted and feeling pretty shit that my submissions were not.

There were some brilliant works on show. One has even previously featured in this year's Taylor Wessing exhibition and is of course brilliant (though I think is a bit cheeky if you’ve already won a major accolade to then hawk your work round other far more minor exhibitions). There was also work I’ve seen recently in the BJP and one portrait in particular really stood out for me for its power and bolt of lightning connection in the eyes of the subject with you as the viewer.

But many looked like the curators had been given a night off and the selection left to the horses. I found myself thinking ‘how the hell did that get selected but mine didn’t; is my work really that weak? Inevitably the self-doubt starts to creep in and I can hear the clock counting down to the point at which this edifice of self-esteem that I am, in all honesty, building on this pursuit of truth, beauty and love, comes crashing down into the pretentious heap of a mid life crisis. I keep trying to convince myself that that's not what's been going on but there's a very good chance it is.

I texted my friend for some crumb of comfort. He’s even more accomplished now having recently made the short list for the Sony World Photography Awards, whittled down from around 150,000 submissions to the last 40 or so. He even had the temerity to submit a portrait even though he says he’s not remotely a portrait photographer. He’s a bastard of course but he’s also a dear friend and because his work has been externally validated, his opinion matters and counts a great deal and not just to me.

The crumbs were plentiful, enough even for a small cake.

‘Competitions are for horses’ he said again. ‘Don’t take anything from it, most of the time the curators don’t even know what they’re looking for; your work is fabulous and you have an energy and drive that I’m incredibly envious of’.

They were good crumbs, as I said, he’s a good mate and has been something of a mentor to me that last few years of this photographic journey. But still, this need for external validation exists. It cries out to be nurtured like the thousands of pouting teenage selfies I see on my Instagram feed, all desperate for affiliation, actualisation and validation. I’m no different.