The Photographers’ Gallery is the largest public gallery in London dedicated to photography. From the latest emerging talent, to historical archives and established artists, it is one of the best places to discover inspiring photography in all its forms.

In celebration of our Exposure Awards 2017 (closing for entries today!), we reached out to a long-time curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuiad. Below, she offers great advice for emerging and established photographers alike who are looking to take the next step in their careers.

LC: Let’s start things off with a broad question: what are you hoping to find in the submissions to the Exposure Awards? A new perspective, a new use of the medium? Is there anything you’d like to communicate to the photographers who are submitting to Exposure Awards 2017 about how to create a compelling submission?

KMQ: Be clear and direct with how you describe the work to the jurors. There are different contexts where you can be more playful with language and style of writing, but from my point of view, an online submission is perhaps the context where clarity of communication in terms of intent and concept are most useful.

It is very different to encounter work through a submission site than through the intimate space of a photobook, a gallery or a bespoke digital presentation. You don’t need to be overly descriptive; just be sure that judges who want to know more about the project and your intention for the work can get that information via your text.

LC: As a curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, you have a unique perspective on competitions. In your mind, is it important to think about how photography would work in an exhibition, or do you consider the images outside of any external context? Do you find that the work you’re drawn to when you judge competitions is different than the work you select for exhibitions? Or are there common traits?

KMQ: I work in an institution that obviously still cares about the physical encounter with the photograph—we are a brick-and-mortar building with fairly traditional gallery spaces. However, in addition to framed works on walls, we often show film and moving images; we also work with artists who create installations. We frequently schedule projects made for the screen—both online and offline—via our digital program and our Media Wall, a permanent space on the ground floor that is visible both by gallery visitors and passers-by.

Additionally, I work on book projects and public commissions, so I am very used to considering work for different contexts and platforms. Good work is good work, but work in the wrong context or form will always be a huge disappointment. Again I’ll go back to the importance of clearly communicating your intentions: is your ideal context for the work a book, a magazine spread or an exhibition? State it and ensure that we judges know how and where you intend the work to meet its audience.

LC: In your opinion, what steps have the most impact on a photographer’s career? Should all photographers aim to sign to a gallery or publish a photobook? Are competitions and portfolio reviews critical for exposure?

KMQ: Sadly, there is no one answer to any question that starts with “Should all photographers…?” Getting your work seen is crucial, that’s a given. However, sometimes I feel a real imbalance between a photographer’s focus on promotion and circulation and their focus on the work itself.

The strongest impact on your career that you can make is concentrating on making the best work/project/book or exhibition you can. That has to come before everything else.

I urge photographers to be choosy about which prizes and portfolio reviews they enter—don’t feel pressure to overspend and attend them all.

You should budget annually for these sorts of opportunities, much as you would for a studio or equipment—it is an investment in your work. Select one or two key awards or reviews, and don’t do more than you can afford. As a reviewer I try to ensure that the competitions or reviews that I take part in are good value for photographers. I also say that the younger festivals are often the ones where the contact time between photographers and reviewers is more relaxed and generous.

LC: You’ve been a frequent portfolio reviewer around the world. What are a few pieces of advice you find yourself offering most frequently to aspiring or emerging photographers who are looking to break through in their careers?

KMQ: I would say be open to sharing work in progress in a portfolio review session. It is often much more beneficial than sharing work that you feel is already very finished.

If you have made every decision about the work, reviews can be a bit of a wasted opportunity.

I would urge photographers to consider reviews as a stage for presenting work before publishing and exhibiting—not everything has to be tied up. That way you can actually consider feedback and have some space in the project to respond.

Also, be sure to think about a few key questions that you want answered about the project before you head into any review session—perhaps in relation to sequencing, format, production, accompanying text etc. It’s good to have a few concrete questions ready and waiting in case the conversation doesn’t flow naturally.

Furthermore, when you are at these meetings, it is so important that you spend as much time sharing work and ideas with other photographers as well as with the “experts.” Keep an open mind. Really valuable collaborations and connections can come from all directions at these events—not just from across the review table.

—Karen McQuaid interviewed by Coralie Kraft


Editors’ note: Karen McQuaid will be judging entries to the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Becker and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.