Photo Contests are Screw Jobs

At various points in my increasingly lengthy (20+ year) growth experience as a photographer, I’ve taken shots that somebody has recommended to be entered in some photo contest or another. It’s flattering, and I do appreciate the compliments with utmost gratitude.

The catch: With rare exceptions, I don’t enter photo contests, and neither should you! Here’s why…

Unfortunately, the fine print of the overwhelming majority of photo contests (even those from seemingly reputable outfits like National Geographic) involve absolutely hideous terms that make you allow them to do anything they please, anytime, anywhere, with your work, without your permission, and with no compensation. At best, you may be offered a trivial pittance far below standard stock rates (e.g., Weatherwise contest), but even that’s a fountain of generosity compared to the terms of most contest operators.

Most often, if you so much as submit a photo (not even place or win), you are agreeing to let strangers profit from and display your hard-earned work, forever and ever, while you get…NOTHING, and like it!

This phenomenon is not new, and it not news to most professional photographers. But newbies, amateurs and casual shutterbugs might not have a clue what they’re getting into by entering these contests.

I’ll show one of many possible examples. American Airlines is “offering” members of its frequent-flier program the fine opportunity to be screwed out of the rights to their own work. As an AA mileage member who also is a photographer, I find this repugnant.

Don’t believe me? Read this rubbish, straight from the contest site‘s little “Official Rules” link (valid thru 25 Aug 2009). I am providing a screen capture of the most pertinent part for non-perishability, and to show you how tiny is the fine print, even in digital form.

That, by the way, was stuck at the very end of page-after-page-after-page of the same mind-numbing font of small print. I have underlined the most onerous examples of contest terms found therein, and highlighted (green circle and text) a special little booby trap in the form of a contestants’ gag order.

No matter how legal it may be, it also is immoral. Stating how badly you can be screwed in fine print doesn’t absolve them of the moral responsibility for doing so. It’s no different in concept than if the local softball association tucked a clause away in some legally binding fine print, saying you allow them the right to shove aluminum bats up your butt at their whim, anytime and anywhere, as a condition to play in the league.

I’m not singling out American’s contest either. They are far from alone in such eviscerating practices; indeed, it is pervasive. Here’s the pertinent snippet from National Geographic’s privacy policy and usage agreement for its “Your Shot” rip job:

Yes, I am a (soon to be former) member of the National Geographic Society, for this and many other reasons.

Then there’s Weatherwise, whose policy has changed little in 20 years, and which turned me off even as a college meteorology student and aspiring beginner at photography:

I know I could have gotten many photos published in that magazine this way or otherwise, given the decidedly mediocre composition and quality of some contest photos and illustrative weather shots they have printed over the years. No dice…all along, I have taken a stand on principle, in effect telling them to stuff their photo policy where the sun doesn’t shine. I’ve done just fine without entering any of my photos in their contest.

These are far, far from the only examples of decidedly disadvantageous (for photographers) photo contest rules. Browse the posts and archives of photo attorney Carolyn Wright’s BLOG, and you’ll see numerous others. Essentially, the same stipulations apply to almost any photo contest anymore. You might as well bend over and kiss your rights good-bye, all for some vainglorious desire to “win” a prize whose odds are tiny, whose judges are unknown in their own identities and in their photographic credentials, and whose judgment criteria are a mysterious, unspecified black box.

Entering photo contests is not worth it unless your ego is so fragile as to overwhelm common sense.

If you are a photographer who gives a crap about your work, and who doesn’t want to be ripped off of your commercial rights to it, then read all the fine print. Do not let your pride get in the way of pragmatism. You, as a photographer, deserve better! Avoid any and all contests that demand to profit from your photographic work for free.

In short: Stay away from photo contests!

Be advised, too, that many online photo hosting services and social networks (i.e., Facebook) claim various rights to use your photography without compensation. The solution is so simple: Don’t post photos to them. Instead upload images to a non-affiliated website (such as your own server or BLOG space) and provide links to your galleries from your social network posts.


One Response to “Photo Contests are Screw Jobs”

  1. tornado on August 8th, 2009 9:16 pm

    From Chuck Doswell:

    Are you just now discovering the rapacious nature of photo contests? Anyone who asks me would receive the same advice; namely, don’t ever contribute to these as they are giving the contest organizers the license (literally) to steal your images! I learned this many years ago, perhaps because I have a penchant for reading the fine print. I advise your readers to develop the same habit.


    My response:

    No, it’s not a new discovery on my part, just an event-stimulated uncorking of a long-held geyser of disgust with these things. I hope whomever may read this will take that advice!

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