Skipping The San Diego Fair Photo Contest
I have decided to skip the 2016 San Diego Fair Photo Contest. I was a little hesitant to write this post, because I don’t want to take away the hard work done by the contest judges, or the many participants and ribbon-winners each year. I did feel I needed to share my thoughts though.
With the advent of digital media and the incredible popularity of photography in this age, the contest has become incredibly popular. There are usually over 4,000 entries across 34 categories. The photo contest at the San Diego Fair is both prestigious and accessible to photographers of all types and experience. This is a great thing!
There are major issues though. My frustration began with the first year of digital entries (2011), where many of us were elated to find out our images were accepted into the fair only to find out 5 hours later a mistake was made. Most of us received 2 fair tickets that went unused and a “sorry for the inconvenience.”
It costs $ 20.00 per entry (used to be $ 18.00) so turning in 5 images would incredibly, cost $ 100.00. This is listed as a processing fee, which is just astounding because it may be some of the most expensive data storage in the entire technology industry.
If your entry is accepted, then the costs don’t end there. You are given a 16 x 20 surface area for your print, never mind that most of the photography world has permanently converted to a 2 x 3 aspect ratio. The artist is essentially asked to crop an image they never intended to crop, or they have to use a black bar or other shadowbox effect to fit their image in the size allotted. And incredibly, I have read one of the judges criticize artists doing this! The contest itself created that problem.
I have also read judging critiques that seem to show a level of animosity and hostility towards digital work, processing, and modern artistic aesthetic. While I dislike gaudy HDR tone-mapping as much as anybody, I also don’t believe that film is inherently superior. I reject many of the arguments that I see that are condescending to digital photography. The vibrance and saturation sliders are not evil.
Your accepted entry also confirms that this is really a photographic print contest, not a photo contest. There is no doubt that your work is judged on composition and artistic merit, but I have seen articles online of judges criticizing print quality, incidental scratches or other marring that were probably due to mishandling, dropping, or any other issues bound to happen as your work is presented at the reception and during the fair. Somebody accidentally scratches your print? Well I hope you don’t mind losing out on a ribbon.
Because of these issues, most people resort to mounting their print to gatorboard or another rigid surface to try to keep the print as pristine as possible. This is pretty expensive. My last one cost $ 54.00, bringing my costs up to $ 72.00 for a single image! On top of that, the gatorboard makes your print virtually impossible to use in a frame in the future, so it is next to impossible to sell the print and recoup your costs.
If you work during the day, you also have additional ways to lose out. The hours to drop your work off are not easy if you have a day job, and while they do have late afternoon hours, the Fair just happens to be located at the epicenter of some of the worst traffic in San Diego County. If you are trying to make it home after work at a reasonable hour and don’t happen to live in Coastal North County, it just doesn’t work.
This problem also exists for picking up the gatorboard mounted-work you can’t sell after the fair. I was fortunate enough to have somebody drop off my work when my last entry was accepted, but incredibly, they refused to allow that same person to pick it up for me! I was out of town, and as a result, my $ 72.00 investment into the fair was thrown in the trash.
This contest is broken. The concept and the prestige make it very attractive to the local photography community. But it needs to be re-engineered and conducted in a way that is challenging, but much less expensive and with better accessibility to artists of all walks of life.
Do you want to try your hand at other contests? The local PPA club of SD County charges $ 15.00 per image for their contest, and that is pretty steep. Not recommended.
Poly Photo Club has an array of contests and you only need to be a member. Same goes for Darkroomers and both of those are highly recommended. I have several friends who have been guest judges and have said working with those clubs have been worth their time.
When I became the President of the San Diego Photo Club, I encouraged our members to enter the San Diego Fair Photo Contest and many followed suit. I was proud of all of the members who were accepted into the Fair last year, and a number of people who received ribbons. But was it worth the cost? I would say it wasn’t. Even with a first place ribbon, and a very small honorarium, the true winner is the San Diego Fair. You paid $ 20.00 for that ribbon, after all.
The San Diego Photo Club is working on a Fall 2016 Photo Contest and I think the only requirement will be membership in the club. I suspect it will be much more enjoyable by the club as a result.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.