As the tides of the photography world continue to shift on a daily basis, the medium has become more and more accessible to individuals all over the world, with the photography community growing at an exponential rate. And while the technological advancements over past decades have made photography more accessible, it also feels harder than ever to make your work stand out amongst the wide range of practitioners that exist around the globe. In the same vein, opportunities to show your work to professionals and specialists feel overwhelming—there are so many awards, competitions and portfolio reviews calling for entries throughout the year associated with countless organizations. But how do you know which opportunity is best for you? And how do you ensure you’re investing your time and money properly?
In an effort to untangle this overwhelming confusion, we sat down with Artistic Director of QUAD and FORMAT International Photography Festival Louise Fedotov-Clements, who has worked with a number of emerging and established photographers on an array of projects, from exhibitions to portfolio reviews to artist talks and interactive programming. We are excited that Louise has agreed to be a member of our jury for our LensCulture Black & White Photography Awards, where she will be reviewing submissions alongside our other jurors to select the Winners, Finalists and her own Juror’s Pick from the pool of applicants.
For this interview, we asked Louise a number of questions we often hear from photographers about submitting to awards, including the make or break decisions for entries, the best way to ensure your work makes an impression on judges and jurors, and what type of work impacts Louise’s own taste while reviewing images.
LensCulture: Many people don’t consider that the process of reviewing submissions is as fruitful for jurors as it is for entrants to awards and competitions. What do you personally get out of being a juror for major prizes and opportunities? What keeps you participating in the awards circuit?
Louise Fedotov-Clements: Good quality open calls can offer a special opportunity to recognize outstanding individuals working with photography. It’s also a way for curators to find new voices, and it is a process that refreshes the scene by reaching out internationally, finding individuals to support beyond our spheres of reference. As a jury member, it is fascinating to see the range of ideas and approaches throughout awards submissions, exploring multiple subjects, from longform documentary to wider cultural, economic and political concerns, to conceptually driven series, be they digital, analogue, generative, performative and beyond.
LC: We often hear stories from jurors who have gone on to work with photographers they discovered through an award, regardless of whether or not they won one of the prizes. In your experience, are there any lesser-understood opportunities and benefits that exist by applying to awards and competitions?
LFC: I personally enjoy looking through the submissions several times and getting to know the works, and then making a selection that really starts to resonate strongly around the photographer’s theme, and I know this is similar to the strategy of other jurors. This familiarizes me with their work, even if they don’t necessarily win, and it helps me call them to mind if I think of some separate programming that might suit the work better. I definitely talent scout photographers to recommend or save for other projects while I am looking through submissions. Open calls are often where I encounter interesting artists who I may follow for a number of years, and whose website I may visit to see what else they are doing.
LC: But for photographers, facing the sheer volume of awards and competitions on offer can be overwhelming, especially when you are up against so many applicants. Standing out is very important. In your experience as a juror for various awards and your work with FORMAT, what makes a strong submission? Do you have any tips for preparing a submission?
LFC: It’s true, there are a huge number of open calls and awards to choose from—on offer worldwide, all year round—so it can be a challenge for artists to decide which one to select. Some awards offer exhibitions, and others offer visibility online. Some calls are good to apply to from a strategic standpoint, even if the competition is high, for visibility. What I advise photographers to do is look at the jury and see who you would like to put your work in front of. Make sure you are clear about the ideas in the work and make a strong edit, but mention if there are more works available. Put weblinks into the text, and make sure you understand what the organization offers if you are selected—read the small print. Be aware of how your images will be used online, in print and in an exhibition, and be aware of who pays for what.
LC: How important is supporting text in a submission? Do you have any advice for photographer’s when drafting their project statements?
LFC: It is very helpful to read something about the series or images that are submitted. The best statements are honest and clear, and talk about what is most important to consider in the work, whether it is a story, fiction, participant narrative, practical detail, or how the images sit within your wider practice as an artist. If you want the work to speak for itself, that is fine too, but think about what else you can say about the place where it was shot, or any other detail that might be of interest. Don’t waffle with unneeded words that don’t make sense. You can also consider asking someone else to write about your work, and edit a statement from there.
LC: How have you seen that meticulous attention to detail affect your own approach to artists’ work? What are you specifically drawn to?
LFC: As a juror, when I select works for photography awards and open calls, I look for something that fits with or challenges the brief—something authentic, with a special aspect or detail that I haven’t seen before. This can be a subtle nuance or a spectacular revelation. I mainly want to see something that is genuine. I am interested in all genres and cross-fertilized projects, so the key thing I am drawn to is when the work is true to the originator and the subject. The work also needs to provoke me in some way, through ideas or composition, as a single image or as a series. I am very interested in the politics and ethics of the content of the image, as well as how the works communicate and make me think.
Another important thing to think about when applying for an open call is the full package: selecting the images, writing and deciding on the text and statement, preparing a bio, and making sure your website is updated. These are all good things to heavily consider in order to maintain the momentum and presentation of your work. It can be a tough existence living as an independent artist, but open call structures, deadlines and jury exposure can provide positive momentum that often leads to other practical and positive emotional outcomes.
LC: It’s important to mention those small practicalities in the presentation of an artist’s work. Having reviewed a range of entries for a number of themes, what do you think makes a strong submission (aside from the artist statement)? Do you have any tips for photographers when preparing their submission?
LFC: As with most jury processes, it is a challenge to view the work online and to appreciate the depth and nuance of ideas and intention, so it is very important to make your submission incredibly clear. Don’t add any unnecessary work and texts to fill out the allocated space for the sake of it—less is more. Focus on the strength of your work. Fortunately, the judging process often allows for discussions and debate, so that the jurors read, think about and revisit the works. In order for artists to stand out and be shortlisted, they need to demonstrate exceptional points of view in coherent projects that show us their richness, and that is only made possible by going in deep rather than wide.
LC: We’re excited to have you on our panel of jurors for the upcoming LensCulture Black & White Photography Awards! Last year we received so many amazing submissions, from street photography to gritty, alternative work. In your opinion, what does working in black and white offer creatively to a photographer that color processes do not?
LFC: Black and white photography encompasses a broad field of practice, and is inherently a special way of thinking and looking at the world that is different from color photography. Contrast is important in black and white images, as is the subtlety of tone. The reduced color field allows for key points in each image to shine, and anticipating those components is a skill that is quite a challenge to master.
LC: What is the history of black and white photography at FORMAT Festival? In your experience, does the audience respond differently to black and white works compared with color images?
LFC: The FORMAT Festival and programs include all varieties of photography, but black and white photography is always a feature in one way or another. There are so many ways of working in this category, from archives to new digital works, through to wet plate collodion. I don’t think that audiences respond differently to black and white versus color, but the older processes do spark interest in terms of their creation processes.
LC: It’s inevitable that some photographers may feel despondent or rejected when not selected as a winner or finalist in a competition, particularly if they feel their work and submission is strong. Do you have any advice for photographers for staying positive and motivated in the face of disappointment?
LFC: I understand that the work of every artist is very important to them, and I encourage all artists at every stage of development to apply for opportunities such as these. It can be disappointing to be rejected, but not every call will work out, and as we all know, persistence pays off. I encourage all artists to keep going with their practice, and to continue to develop the confidence to find their own voice and strategies to communicate visually.
LC: What is a common mistake you see in submissions, and how best can it be avoided?
LFC: You’d be surprised, but it’s often the most obvious things, such as missing contact details, not sharing a short introduction to the series, or mixing bodies of work without intention or separation.
LC: I think it’s key to end our conversation by talking a bit about sequencing, which many photographers overlook when putting together a submission. How important is the sequence in a submission? Do you have any advice for photographers when working on their edit?
LFC: Sequencing and editing are very important elements of the work—it can take many years and variations to get to the perfect balance. Most jury members are able to see past a poor edit or sequence in order to understand the potential for a series to develop, but if you would like to get better at it, a few ideas are: print out your images and stick them to a wall with tacks, rearrange them, and live with them for as long as you can, reducing them down until a selection emerges. You can then share this selection with a few people to see if it communicates what you are trying to say. Don’t be scared to lose a sentimental image if it’s necessary for the greater good of the project. Attend portfolio reviews, explain the focus of your series, and ask the reviewer to organize the sequence according to what they think would work best. You can photograph each response for a record, and consider which direction to take with the work when you leave those conversations.