picking images for contests

Though I had been working on my entry for several weeks, this past Friday, just hours ahead of the close of regular submissions (late submission runs through April 8th), I submitted my work for the Communication Arts 2011 Photography Competition. This was my second time to enter the competition and both times I've found the process to be agony. I'm sure part of that is my lack of experience (this is the only contest I've ever tried my hand at) and part of the agony is just the natural sting of editing your own work, which is really tough to do well.

CA-genocidethe Armenian Genocide Memorial, Yerevan, Armenia (part of Armenia series entry)

Spend 10 minutes googling around, and you'll see there is precious little (read: none) published by contest participants about what they entered and why. There's tons published on which contests to enter & avoid, but nothing practical, from the people who’ve done it, about selecting work. I don't know what I hoped to glean from that kind of information, but seeing how people work through their own agony just seemed like it would be helpful. So, since I've just been through the process, I thought I'd share my experience.

My hope is that in doing this a conversation might begin and other photographers might follow suit. What follows is very one sided, but hopefully, in time, this starts a conversation.  For the sake of word count, I’m not going to go blow by blow, but I will reveal a little bit of my process & you’ll understand how I answered these questions:

  1. How much work should I enter?
  2. How do I decide what work is contest worthy?
  3. How do I refine my choices?

CA-lenina decaptitated statue of Vladimir Lenin (part of Armenia series entry)

I started by looking through my work, the contest categories, fees and my personal budget - and I did all that weeks before the deadline. Doing this helped answer a very natural first question - how much work should I enter? For me, the answer was 2 series & 3 single image entries. I wanted an answer because having a sense of scope helped me hone in on the target, much like a writer works from a word count, I was able to limit the possibilities, which helped me focus my time & energy.

Next, I made a list of possible entries. I simply jotted down my best work from the last year - the stuff I thought was visually gripping and had a unique voice - and what category it fit. Thankfully my work only fits into a few categories, so the work itself helped limit the available choices. This is the list I came up with:


Notice Cuba is up top. It’s a pretty sprawling body of work & there are many threads to the story, so if I went that way, I would have to pare it down a little. No matter what I’m working on, I think it's beneficial to constantly refine your scope. Limiting yourself may feel like putting on handcuffs, but I've found I create best when I know my limits. Ultimately, the work from Cuba didn't make the cut, but it serves as a good example of what I mean by refining scope.

I started by sectioning off the work into themes - children of Havana, Havana at night, urban decay, and so on. While I’m shooting, I think about how individual images relate to each other and how those sub-themes relate to the broader story. So, coming up with that list wasn’t too difficult. But I didn’t have the budget to enter 97 series, so I had to make a choice - what is the strongest, best version of the work? When you ask these kinds of questions of yourself, some images you love may get left behind - and that’s okay. The answer I came to was Havana at night & the children of Havana were the strongest overall. So, very quickly I pulled work together that was strong & fit those themes; here is what I chose for Cuba:

CA-CubaNightHavana at Night

CA-CubaKidsHavana's Children

Trust me, there are dozens of images that I have an affection for that didn’t make it to this point; I tried really hard to let my instinct guide my decisions and not let my darlings interfere in the process. It was tough, but instead of having to try and make sense of hundreds of images, I now had two fairly tight little stories that I could work from. CommArts defines a series as no more than 5 images, so, had I made the decision to enter either of these stories, I would have still had quite a bit of work ahead of me in the editing department. Which begs the question, how did I edit the entries I did enter? Let's look at one of the series.

The question wasn't which 2 of the 5 choices I would enter, it was which story would fill the final spot. I felt that strongly about entering Untouchable. It had all the criteria I wanted, remarkable subject, powerful images and a unique point of view. In total I shot nearly 50 portraits in this series, which made getting to 5 difficult. But I started by pulling my favorites - turns out, I really loved 10 of them. Here they are:






What came next wasn't easy. It took days of stewing on it, asking for help from someone I trust and really questioning what made the best edit. I'm sure if I gave you these 10 images you would have selected differently than I did but, when it was all said and done, I had to make choices I was willing to live with.

In order to begin refining to the magic number 5, I had to understand what I was drawn to in each image and what each image did for the work as a whole. Here was my thinking on each image, row, by row:

  1. (L) color, expression and mood are striking; (R) to me the entire series hinges on this portrait of Ravanniah.
  2. These images were different versions of the same idea - environmental portrait. (L) fairly intimate look inside her home; something special about the mood; (R) wide perspective reveals so much story.
  3. (L) beautiful gesture, plus it’s the only true detail in the selected images; (R) it's not technically perfect, but I'm drawn to the juxtaposition between the joy on the children's faces and the grim reality that they were born with a disease that would eventually rob them of nearly everything.
  4. (L) there is a Grapes of Wrath quality to this image, reminds me of Life magazine; (R) there’s something universally human about the way the little girl is peeking up.
  5. Obviously, these are different camera positions on the same scene. (L) close & wide makes you feel like you’re standing there sharing the moment... it’s joy with a backdrop of sadness; (R) I absolutely love the composition of this image.

I knew I wanted variety in the viewpoints, meaning, I didn't want everything to be at 11mm, the focal length of most of what I chose. And, if I’m honest, 4 of the 5 fell into place rather easily - I went with Ravanniah, the woman in green, the hands & children straight away. In the early stages, I wavered between the images in row 5 to fill out the final spot... but both seemed to color the series rather dramatically - the one of the left made everything feel a little too happy & the one of the right brought a little too much stoic weight to the other images. So, I ended up trying just about every image in that final place. At the end of the day, I kept coming back to the image of the woman on the floor of her home; it revealed something startling - a sense of pride - and that's what tipped the scales for me.

Finally, let's look at my single image entries and quickly discuss why I continued to refine my plan. Knowing that I would be pulling far more work than I needed, I had tagged a handful of images as possible single image entries. Among those below, I also thought Ravanniah (if he didn't end up in the Untouchable edit) & the boy playing stickball (from Cuba) might fit.

CA-pinarViñales National Park, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

CA-modanofrom the story 'Final days of Mike Modano'

CA-Armeniaboth images from a cultural essay on Armenia (my other series entry)

Since Ravanniah & the sanctuary image (above, right) made their respective edits, I (quite honestly) didn't feel like paying double to enter an image. The rules state that if CommArts feels an entry better fits in a category other than the one entered, it will be moved - so, I guess if they are desperate to take either of those images on their own, apart from the series, they have the ability within the guidelines to do that. I also pretty quickly realized that the image of Viñales, while beautiful, didn't really measure up. It's a pretty landscape, but not much more & I just didn't believe that they would have space for something like that.

That left me with the woman at the candles, Modano taking the ice at home for the final time as a Dallas Star & the boy playing stickball. I was right on the mark with what I'd set out to do... but, as I was preparing my entries I started to second guess the stickball image. It was good, it works on many levels, but at the end of the day, does it tell the story, all on it's own, that I set out to tell? And I just couldn't answer yes with very much conviction. So, it fell away and I was left with 2 series & 2 single image entries. Even up to the final minute, I continued to refine the submitted work. Why? When it came time to place my bets with hard earned dollars, I just didn't believe that I had 3 single image entries that belonged on the pages of CommArts.

So, now it’s your turn. Have you entered a contest or edited your portfolio recently? I want to see what you chose & why.