With the deadline for this year's ZEISS Photography Award fast approaching, we ask 2020 competition judge Max Ferguson to tap into his thoughts on competitions, what makes a cohesive series and where the photographic medium is heading
What are the benefits to photographers entering photography competitions?
As well as the obvious benefits of the prizes that are on offer – the process of thinking about your images, collating ideas and refining your practice are always useful. It’s important to think about the competition you are entering and be especially cautious of entering competitions that charge you.
What three tips would you give to a photographer entering a competition?
The trick is to find the competitions that suit your work rather than entering every competition. The first thing you should do is look at who is judging it. Research them and see what type of work they're interested in. It’s also important to look at where the prize money comes from and check the terms and conditions to see what their policy is on using your photographs. Check whether it’s funded by a sponsor or from people’s submission fees. If it’s the latter you should consider whether the cost of entry is really worth it for you. And finally, think carefully about your selection and make sure it’s colour graded with an sRGB profile as most things are judged digitally.
You founded the magazine Splash & Grab, a title supporting innovative photographers and are the Photo Director of Port Magazine. What do you look for when commissioning a photographer?
I’m not particularly interested in what editorial work people have been shooting – and I'm not interested at all in commercial work. The pictures I want to look at are the photographers’ personal projects. What are you shooting and thinking about when no one is paying you? I’ll always go straight to the personal photographs on someone’s website.
What elements make up a cohesive body of work?
There are so many things that can make up a photographic body of work. One of my favourite series is Walker Evans’ Beauties of the Common Tool, which is photographs of hand tools shot for Fortune magazine. I also love Liz Johnson Artur's Black Balloon Archive series, which she's been working on for 30 years. There are some particular factors to consider when producing something that will stand up in today’s documentary obsessed photography world – you need to combine visually strong images with a narrative. For me, the projects are always more interesting when the narrative is loose and is asking more questions rather than giving the viewer answers.
Alongside your editorial work, you teach students at the London College of Communication. In your opinion, what direction is photography heading towards?
I’m always amazed by my students’ ability to make deeply personal photographs. There have been so many photographs made about the Other that it's really refreshing to see more and more people looking inwards. I think that also leads towards a smaller movement in photography – and one I find the most interesting – and that's community-based projects. These could be anything from small groups of students forming their own collectives to people working with charities to empower people to tell their own stories.
Max Ferguson is the Photo Director of Port Magazine, Editor of Splash & Grab Magazine and a regular photo editor for FT Weekend Magazine. He’s a lecturer in photography at the London College of Communication. He writes about photography and curates exhibitions.
Max joins the judging panel for the 2020 ZEISS Photography Award. Enter your series relating to Seeing Beyond: Discoveries before 4 February, 2020 - 13:00 (GMT).