The Association of Photographers’ Open Awards aims to shift the focus away from the photographer and instead celebrate the power of the image alone. Priding itself as an awards with a broad global reach, its most recent iteration saw some 3500 images submitted from various far flung corners of the world, from Finland to San Francisco. Entries came from hobbyists, professional photographers and everyone in between; instead of being influenced by a photographer’s professional industry accolades, the judges scrutinise the image as a standalone entity.
“Being a finalist in the AOP Open Awards has given me the confidence to produce more photographic work and present it to people with a belief that it will be taken seriously,” says 2017 finalist Julian Hicks. As a digital retoucher, Hicks felt that “most of the time [his] work was not recognised at an artistic level because [he is] not a professional photographer.” A celebration of excellence in photography from across the world, the Open Awards dismantles such barriers, reflecting the wider AOP’s ethos of ‘promoting, protecting and educating photographers of all levels’. The AOP was created 50 years ago by photographers and today it is still run by photographers for photographers. A not-for-profit, organisation, its all revenues go back into promoting photographers and creators.
Photographer and filmmaker Dan Prince, a finalist from the most recent Awards, highlights the value of this inclusivity: “The Awards are a great platform for visibility within the industry as Open finalists exhibit alongside the main awards [the AOP Photography Awards and the Student Awards] which attract a lot of creative people,” he says. Finalists of the 2019 Awards will have their winning images showcased as part of a group exhibition at One Canada Square, Canary Wharf and will be rewarded with prizes including a £4000 Lumix kit voucher.
With the competition closing for entries on 25 February 2019, we spoke to four photographers – Katinka Herbert, Julian Hicks, Dan Prince and Fiona Read – about how they selected their winning submission and why the Open Awards were integral to their professional development. From a staged portrait to a candid shot taken in the wild, the range of submissions is notably varied. They can be seen as a microcosm of the wider entry pool.
“Gazing at these bodies, we are forced to imagine the movements of which they are capable. The lives they wish to leave behind, and the ones that they dream of,” says Herbert, referring to her photo series on Cuban athletes. The Movers unveils the layers of inaccuracy surrounding Cuban representation and repositions the photographer’s subjects through her critical eye. The image that made her a 2017 Open Award finalist, Joanna, Tropicana Club Dancer depicts a dancer, fully dressed in her performance costume, perched upright on the edge of her bed, stuck static within the confines of the bedroom walls and the even more rigid borders of the staged photograph. As a singular shot, it captures the overarching themes that tie the series together: the tension between mobility and domesticity, the black body as a “ticket to global mobility,” and the oppression of black movement both on and off the world stage.
Much like Prince, Herbert lauds the career-changing power of the awards: “the Open Awards offer great exposure across the industry,” she says. Since winning, The Movers has been exhibited at Photo London, the photography biennale at Somerset House and published in a number of high profile European magazines. Such exposure has further shed light and brought greater attention to the realities of life in Cuba.
Hicks is a commercial retoucher. His photograph The Screaming Cow – a crepuscular cow staring ominously into the camera – was a 2017 finalist in the Stills category. Taken from the vantage point of a boat on the Thames, the photograph is shrouded in a mysticism found in the rest of Hicks’s photographic portfolio. Since reaching the Open Awards finals, The Screaming Cow has been exhibited at the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, as well as being longlisted for the 2017 Celeste Art Prize.
Hicks however stresses that most significant/impact of winning lies beyond the accolades: “Being a finalist in the AOP Open Awards has given me the confidence to produce more photographic work and to present it to people with a belief that it will be taken seriously. There must be so many people like me that have creative awareness and skill that don’t ever take the chance to be considered for prizes.”
With such broad submission guidelines how does one go about selecting what to enter? For Prince, the answer is simple: “Sometimes it’s the shots that you personally might not think are the strongest that make the Awards. You never know.” His winning submission, The Latvians was taken while on set for a photography commission. “These guys [his subjects] were actors in the TV advert. I wandered around the location and found a large window which was perfect. I asked them to to stand for a portrait and luckily, they agreed.” He encourages prospective entrants to take the plunge and “Just submit. Even if you have doubts, submit.”
Though the Open Awards is open to all, Read – whose portrait of her daughter featured in the 2017 Open Awards exhibition – stresses that serendipity alone does not make a winning entry. Rather, she suggests that a “compelling portrait is a truthful one, where the model is truly engaged with the moment.” Echoing the reflections of the photographers featured above, Read comments on the ripple effect the awards has had on her career: “Since then, I have graduated with a degree in Photography and have begun lecturing at the college I studied at. I have always loved portraits and working with people but this was a turning point for me and solidified that passion.”
The Open Awards is now open for submissions in the following categories: Stills, Moving Image and Innovation – a new category designed to encourage the use of new technologies. Submit your photography here. A curated exhibition of the winning work will take place at One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London from 15 April – 31 May 2019.
This article has been written in partnership with Association of Photographers. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.