Rob isn’t afraid to handle a very hot potato: “What’s the biggest scam in photography? Judging purely on angry comments I get and see […] when the topic is raised, it’s photo contests with portfolio reviews running a close second.”
I suppose it might be worthwhile to make some observations about this general complex (there might be more):
1. There seems to be a difference in what commercial and fine-art photographers (don’t ask me to specify these categories, that would be beside the point) typically want to get out of competitions and/or portfolio reviews. It’s very worthwhile to keep this in mind.
2. I’ve encountered a lot of resentment towards competition entry fees and/or the fees associated with portfolio reviews. Since I’m not independently wealthy, I’m partly sympathetic to those concerns. However, without thinking about any particular competition and/or review, I don’t see why any organization should not be allowed to make some money using a competition and/or review. After all, the money to run the organization has to come from some source, and as long as a participant gets something out of the competition and/or review I don’t see why making a “profit” is such a bad thing.
3. With that in mind, it is of course up to each individual photographer to decide whether she or he wants to pay the money to enter a competition or go to a portfolio review. If in doubt, the internet makes talking to other photographers about whether it’s worth it extremely easy and straightforward.
4. I think the idea that entrance fees mean that the system is based on “pay to play” is flawed (and I actually find it a bit too cynical to pretend that the photo world is some sort of exclusive club where you have to pay to get in). Getting photography in front of “relevant” people (for example photo editors if you’re a commercial photographer or gallerists if you’re a fine-art photographer) costs money (to produce postcards or a fancy portfolio or whatever), and it’s not clear, yet, how the internet will change this. For example, if you’re on Flickr the likelihood that somebody will discover you and turn you into the next photography superstar is vanishingly small. And even if the web will some day change this then we’d still have to consider 2.
As I said, just some thoughts, after talking about this during the day with various people via email.