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How to spot biased and unfair photography competitions.

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Entering a photography competition is highly desirable because if you enter and achieve any level of success, your images are part of a platform that raises your profile and showcases your work to a world wide audience.

Everyone who pays to enter a photography competition has the right to have their images judged equally and fairly, and in SLPOTY, we ensure those rights are maintained because we based our entire judging system on the fairest methods found in academic and scientific studies.

Many major photography competitions say they take the judging of images seriously, and treat entrants fairly, but the reality can be somewhat different because the majority of them use outdated judging systems that are prone to bias and involve stages that are unfair. In this article, we set out why and tell you what to look out for so that you can make an informed choice before parting with your cash.

Spotting bias in judging panels

If a competition lists an “authority figure” on their judging panel, then you can use this information to identify and predict biased outcomes in their judging process.

Authority figures tend to be famous photographers, brand name photographers and magazine editors, and studies have shown them to be prone to bias.

Where famous & brand name photographers are concerned, they are frequently featured in magazines, podcasts, interviews etc., so you should pay attention to this. They reveal a lot about themselves, what they do and don’t like and in doing so, they expose their biases.

For example, if a famous photographer regularly expresses the view that using the rule of thirds is an inferior, prescriptive way of capturing an image, then they have exposed their bias. It’s a safe bet therefore, that if you enter an image using the rule of thirds, that this judge will score your image(s) very low.

Where magazine editors are concerned, it’s not quite so obvious but you can spot potential biases nevertheless. Editors see a lot of images and over time they form biases. When it comes to judging competitions, they have one eye on images that will fit their magazine, so bear this in mind. For example, images with white space are favoured by editors because they are great for fitting headlines into and placing text around. It’s likely therefore that if your image contains a lot of white space, your image is likely to win higher marks with this judge.

How an entire judging panels can be swayed by one judges ego

The majority of photography competitions rely on a flawed and bias-prone system to decide the winners. This is known as the “Jury Deliberation Method” and it works like this:

What should happen – the judging panel come together to “deliberate” the images and in doing so, they examine the images, state their opinion, contribute their knowledge and perspective to the rest of the judges. They listen to one another and use the contributions of al all judges to decide the winner.

What usually happens – there is disagreement which turns into debate.

In a debate, the aim is to win the argument and it is always the the judge with the strongest ego that wins – usually the authority figure. The authority figure can be loudly or softly spoken, but they hold on to their opinion nevertheless, and what happens is that everyone else on the judging panel ends up agreeing them – even if that opinion is objectively wrong.

This is known as “authority bias” where sheep-like behaviour takes place called “conformity bias” as is described in this youtube video. It’s more crudely known as brown nosing.

There are many studies that demonstrate this type of judging system is deeply flawed and prone to bias. Many official decision making processes no longer use this method. Photography competitions still use it today however.

Why many photography competitions are unfair

Any competition that includes an authority figure on the judging panel who has made biased opinions in public is stating a biased intent from the outset. That judge can sway the entire judging panel and influence the outcome in their favour, over the rest of the judging panel. This is unfair.

The same applies to any competition that uses a head judge with a casting vote. This means one vote holds more weight than the entire judging panel and is therefore unfair.

Some competitions use sift judges for the first round, a different set of judges for the second round and another set of judges for the final round. Any competition that uses this system is not treating entrants fairly because images that are rejected in the first round for example, may be allowed by a different set of judges in the second round.

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