This month I did what almost every enthusiastic landscape photographer in the UK did: I entered the 2015 edition of Take a View’s annual LPOTY contest, which, as the acronym eludes to, is held to find Britain’s best landscape photographer. I also did something what most photographers who entered did: I had expectations. I did this despite telling myself and the outside world that I knew very well that I didn’t stand a chance to get through the first round of culling, despite me failing at the first hurdle last year, and despite reading (and agreeing with) Duncan Fawkes’ excellent recent blog post on disappointment in a lack of success in photo contests. Hence, when last week I read on social media that emails had been received by photographers, I frantically checked my email. No mail. So I refreshed my inbox. No mail. No worries, perhaps my email is still on its way. It then became clear that only shortlisted photographers had received mail. Anxiety crept in. I then saw that those (and only those) who were shortlisted could log on to the organisers’ website to see their shortlisted photos. I tried logging in, fully knowing that I hadn’t (yet) received an email, pretending there was still hope. The website wouldn’t let me.
Slowly I started to accept that indeed none of my entries impressed the judges of the primary selection panel enough for them to get excited. I say accept, but my emotions bounced between immense disappointment, discouragement, feeling done injustice, confusion, disbelief and a few other emotions which shall not be named. Not surprisingly my Twitter feed that evening mainly consisted of chatter about the shortlisting, and many photographers who I’d consider far superior to me had all or all bar one rejected. Some posted their rejected photos, and I was gobsmacked by some of the collections I saw on my feed, as many of those rejected photos easily outclassed anything I put forward. People expressed their disbelief, or even outrage about some of these cases, and it all made for some bittersweet entertainment that evening. One of the most heard explanations is that a lot depends on luck. While that’s indeed possible, as art can’t be quantified, one would hope that the relative contribution of luck to whether or not a photo strands at the first hurdle is pretty minimal. Especially compared to criteria such as originality of location, viewpoint or photographic theme (I here assume that most photographs entered are technically spot on) though it’s possible that this is easier said than done due to the volume of photos that need to be assessed in a short time span.
Anyway, I digress, as the judging itself is not the topic of this blog. I am confident that the LPOTY team has attracted the best judges for the job, and I would in no way have been able to judge any photo contest, let alone one of this size and importance.
One of the photographs I entered this year. It was taken on a very productive day after some unprecedented amount of snow had fallen. I thought that, despite taken in the oft-photographed area of Glen Coe, that the minimalistic combination of mist and snow brought something new to the table.
The question arises: why had I raised my hopes? I could (and should) have known better, as I failed to get any photographs shortlisted last year too. I think that the main reason for this is that I had stepped up my game considerably compared to the years before. I reserved time for photography most weekends, which was far more consistent than even before. Not unimportantly, I decided to go all-in this year, and used up the maximum allowance of 25 entries. While not purely a numbers game, I was hoping that having more photographs in the competition would increase the odds. This meant I could enter a few photos which had proven to be popular, some photos which were close to my heart, and some photos which I was hoping would have artistic appeal. I also focused far more on mountain photography, and in my silliness I thought that would be an advantage. I spent a considerable number of nights sleeping on some of the most beautiful summits of the Highlands, carried camping and photo gear more than 1000m up, ascended wintry mountains in the dark, all on my own, sometimes not meeting a single soul for days, and all to experience and capture the mountains in the best light. Of course, it has to be said that the amount of effort and dedication is irrelevant. Perhaps, if anything, it inflates the perceived importance of one’s own work. Many great photographers create fantastic nature photos pretty much in their own backyard, and I am intrigued, fascinated and have the utmost respect for those who manage that. Hopefully I’ll ever reach that stage one day too! However, at this point in life I’m naturally drawn to the hills, and photographing them is a logical extension for my love of hiking and certainly not a chore with the sole aim of impressing others. Also, some of my photos were shortlisted in the past rounds of OPOTY, SLPOTY, Scottish Nature Photography Awards and Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which was an encouraging signal that some of my work was deemed worthy enough for judges to have second look. However, as it turns out, past results are rarely predictive of future success:-)
This photograph of a once in a lifetime sky from the summit of Stac Pollaidh was probably one of my personal all-time favourites. Everything came together, a touch of snow, a moody sky, dark ominous light, I even managed to expose correctly. I don’t think I will take a more dramatic photograph for a long time. But perhaps drama isn’t what the judges wanted. Should I aim for more subtlety? And if so, what if nature doesn’t do subtlety, like on the morning this photo was taken?
A logical follow-up question is whether I had unnecessarily raised my expectations. And the answer to this can only be yes. Yes of course I did. However, I was never delusional, and never even dared to even fantasise that I would have a chance to reach the final stage of the competition, end up in the book, let alone receive a commendation. I am aware of the huge amount of talent which exists in the UK. I am also aware that I am a newcomer, have not developed a unique style, and believe me when I say I am the first to talk down my own photographs. But I did hope that at least one of my photos would get a judge excited enough to take it through to the next round. This hope wasn’t based on any concrete arguments, perhaps only on hope and aspiration rather than an inflated view of my own work, and as it appears, was wholly unfounded. It is not surprising that hopes and reality didn’t align, as photographers are notoriously incapable to judge their own work, due to the emotional attachment as a result of the often vast amounts of time, money and effort invested.
Beinn Damh on a blustery winter day was one of my filler entries, and not being among my absolutte favourites I had no high expectations from this one. Should I however have selected a similar photograph where I zoomed in more? Or should I have entered a completely different photo altogether?
Probably the most important question is, does rejection matter? Well, I guess on an emotional level it does. Rejection always hurts, full stop. We all like to get some outside confirmation that we’re not complete frauds, the insecure human beings most of us are. However, does negative validation from a panel of judges have any meaning? If validation is all I seek, shouldn’t I seek it somewhere else, perhaps interacting with other photographers? And indeed, this is where social media (especially Twitter) shines, and I can’t even begin to describe how much it means when I receive favourable comments from photographers I respect. Other avenues, such as submitting to (photography) magazines, may provide similar means of reinforcements if needed, and so far I have nothing to complain about in this respect. There’s another less visible reason for why rejection is painful, and that’s because getting shortlisted may mean your photo (if successful in the next stage) ends up in the book or in the exhibition, and this might mean something from a marketing point of view. After all, this implies that your photo is among the best British landscape photography has to offer, which may very well increase marketability to the general audience. I have no data that it does, and as this is mainly a passion rather than a money-driven endeavour, this point is largely but not entirely irrelevant for me.
I was hoping that these Torridonian sandstone pillars with the primordially shaped Stac Pollaidh hugged by a clouds behind it would catch the judges’ eyes..
So will any of this change my relationship with photography? I doubt it. I have taken up landscape photography because of my love for travel and the outdoors. I am extremely grateful that I’m able to spend any time in the mountains at all. Edinburgh is a much better base for that outdoor malarkey than Amsterdam was, and I’m still counting my blessings living here. The magical moments as the light fades, soaking in those views high above the roads, with not a visual reminder of civilisation visible as far as the eye can see, are truly priceless. And I ache to head back to the hills as soon as time permits, as that’s what it’s all about. Spending time outdoors, sometimes exploring, sometimes just absorbing. And taking some photographs along the way. My ego has perhaps taken a small dent, but I’m sure I will recover.
Perhaps my relationship with the need for validation of all sorts, not just photo competitions, will need to change. It’s easy to get caught up in assessing how many faves photos get on Flickr, how many likes and shares one received on Facebook, of how often a photo gets retweeted on Twitter. I have already taken measures to address this. I have deleted my 500px account earlier this year, as ratings (and thus competition against other photos) is at the core of its existence. As much as I old myself I didn’t care, it did have an effect. Not a large effect, but an effect nonetheless. I think I may have started adding more saturation than needed, I may have gone down the road of “Armageddoning” (a phrase I borrowed from Lizzie Shepherd) dark moody skies, I may have established an unhealthy relationship with golden hour photography etc. I now realised that freeing myself from this constant source of outside validation has relaxed my approach, and has fueled my creativity and desire to (at least try to) think outside the box.
Will I enter again next year? Very likely. Will I get my hopes up again? I’ll try not to, but I guess I will. I’m only human after all 🙂
I will end this long-winded rambling by wishing all those who were shortlisted best of luck. I am looking forward to seeing the final results, and can’t wait to get my paws on the book! And to those, who, just as me, didn’t make the cut: You’re not in it for the win. Remember why you’re doing this. The British landscape is beautiful. Just get back in the field already. Listen to the birds sing. Take some photographs. Or just take in the view. Enjoy.