Open calls have become an inevitable part of a successful career within arts. They bring along exciting opportunities to participate in exhibitions and screenings on a global scale and broaden your network as an artist but also can come with a range of challenges and problems.
As the leading platform for visual applications and contests, it is essential for us to recognize, address, and improve upon these issues and support the brands and organizations using our services to engage with image makers, artists, and photographers to improve, too. Our goal is to provide the best experience possible for both emerging and established artists, as well as for our clients.
That’s why we’re collaborating with curator, editor, and writer Rica Cerbarano. Rica recently initiated a highly anticipated discussion on her Instagram channel that addresses the problems associated with open calls. On that occasion, she invited artists, image makers, and photographers to share their thoughts and personal experiences with open calls, including their pain points. Rica now sheds light on common issues surrounding open calls in this new article.
Rica Cerbarano delves into the issues and complexities surrounding open calls.
“Who’s afraid of Open Calls?”
The amount of open calls and contests dedicated to photographers and image-makers is staggering. Those outside of the industry might think that it’s relatively easy to get your work recognized from the sheer volume of call-to-action opportunities out there, but we all know this is not the case. Over the past decade, the open call phenomenon has intensified to such an extent that it has become the norm—a necessary step in one’s career advancement rather than one possibility in the hopes to get in touch with gatekeepers. The truth is, getting selected as a finalist in an open call can change your life, but so can the performance anxiety that comes along with it.
The fact that more and more organizations are relying on this tool to search for and support new talent is encouraging, as it somehow highlights a determination to address a global audience through the most urgent social issues of our time. But have curators, editors, journalists and cultural workers (mostly the jurors or even organizers of these contests) ever wondered how photographers really experience their relationship with open calls?
On March 7, 2023, I published a post on my Instagram feed inviting photographers to explain what their experience is with open calls. I knew I was touching a nerve —having previously spoken to some photographers about this—but I was not prepared for the high number of messages I received. The lid of Pandora’s box had been opened.
A mixture of excitement, anxiety and discouragement poured into my private messages. As if in a sort of confessional, photographers from all over the world began to speak out about the tricky issues of participating in open calls. I immediately realized that although there are many guides and manuals that explain “how to make a submission the right way” and valuable advice on how to package one’s entry, few times are artists asked for honest feedback on their perception of the open call system. But isn’t it really the first feedback that we should be looking for? Aren’t open calls designed first and foremost for them, the artists? Then why not listen to what they have to say?
From what I could hear—or rather, read—in the course of that day (and later, as some of the conversations went on), there is a shared view by more or less everyone. Open calls can prompt photographers to reorganize their work and look at it from a different angle, but the applications can be very time consuming, sometimes expensive and frustrating. How? I would say that there are four recurring issues photographers come across more often. Let’s break it down.
Squeezing the work in
Understandably, open calls are often thematic. A theme helps to delineate the organization’s vision, demarcate the framework and of course channel the kind of photographic work one expects to receive. Yet, themes are often perceived by photographers as too restraining, especially when abstract and very broad. Shoehorning one’s work to fit the theme can be more of a frustration than an opportunity. Some open calls tend to be very “agenda-driven and far more likely to judge submissions less on the work itself, and more on how well it fits their agenda. This is very discouraging for many applicants,” a messenger responded. However, the thematic framework is not the only cause of psychological pressure in trying to “adapt” one’s work. One of the most expressed issues is the format in which an artist’s project must be adjusted in order to be eligible for the submissions. “The materials required are always different—even just in terms of formats and word count, you’re inevitably expected to squeeze the material inside grids where the work does not always stand out,” says a participant. The submission formats are often not flexible enough to allow certain works to fit into it, and this can have an effect in the way photographers conceive and develop their projects, sometimes even to the extent that they are distorted in order to meet the purposes of open calls. Then there are projects that, due to their nature, cannot really be pigeonholed into certain grids or, for example, into an edit of just a few images. What do photographers do in this case? Often they do not even participate, leading to a standardization of the projects we see in the open calls.
Lack of feedback
“Nothing annoys me more than finding out the results via a press release, rather than being given the courtesy to be told by email,” says an artist in regards to the announcement of open call results. Of course we all know that it’s infeasible to send a personal email to each of the entrants, but it is certainly possible to think of something like an automated response that informs them of the non-acceptance so that artists are prepared in advance. After all, they deserve it. They have spent time formatting their work according to the given guidelines, sometimes even paid for it. Including a feature that systematizes this part of open call management would be a much-needed solution, or at any rate, certainly something that photographers are clamoring for. The organizations’ lack of commitment to communicating with the parties involved does not end there. Sometimes the winners are not even communicated to the jury itself and it often ends up finding out via social media.
Bridging this gap is critical, and it is feasible, to the benefit of all artists. If you’re a photographer, attending open calls should not only be an attempt to be seen and stand out among many others, but also a way to improve by putting yourself out there. In this sense, getting feedback is essential—by being ignored, no real improvement is possible for artists. Rather, frustration and pressure increase exponentially, limiting one’s ability to keep trying in fear of rejection (or no response at all.)
The admissions fee gateway
A single entry might be rare to make an impact for an artist. You have to keep trying and keep submitting to possibly have a chance. For submissions with entry fees, this puts an excessive dent in the artist’s budget. “You participate if you are privileged enough to be able to afford to apply. So basically there is already, willingly or unwillingly, a skim,” says a photographer. Many artists self-fund their work and they are discouraged from applying if the function of fees that are charged are unclear.
Organizing an open call has its costs: communication, publicity, staffand jury…all correspond to an expense. In addition, money collected from participants’ fees often goes to cover other expenses of the organizations as well. There is nothing wrong with this, but perhaps making it explicit could help artists understand what the fee they pay to participate is for and make them feel part of the community.
In any case, to help less well-off photographers, it would be worth thinking about dedicated facilities or a pay-as-you-can format, as this is already happening in some cases. “I have noticed that there are open calls where you can apply for a fee waiver and I think this really helps photographers who would otherwise not be able to participate in submitting their work,” one artist says.
Little room, same names
The widespread feeling is that there are always the same artists that win and a trend ridden by the organizations, which are often inclined to make the easiest choice and not the most interesting one. “Having served on juries of major awards, I’m disappointed with the way in which nominees tend to be evaluated based on the number of awards, exhibitions, and esteem indicators they have already won. So you always see the same people and the same kind of work,” a curator replied. A photographer admits that the good experiences he had in the past were limited to when the jury of a contest already knew him. The reasons for this phenomenon are many, but surely there’s a tinge of curatorial laziness, favoritism, and a tendency to take the easy way out. These are mechanisms on which the art world has always held itself together. It’s nothing new. Yet, to ask artists—mostly emerging ones—to put themselves out there and then reiterate certain dynamics on their backs is undoubtedly unethical. “I think jurors may also look at whether these people have won something before this year and then maybe pick someone else,” suggests a respondent. I’m not sure what the solution is, but the issue must be discussed and brought to light.
Open calls obviously remain an invaluable opportunity for artists’ growth and affirmation, but it is necessary to become aware of some of the shortcomings that will have major consequences in the long run. Considering the aforementioned four hardships and wanting to encapsulate them under one umbrella, we could say that transparency is key. Being honest about the mechanisms at the core of the open calls system and building new conscious ethics around it is demanded.
This is mainly because open calls do not have a circumstantial impact, but extends far beyond the scope of applications, awards and juries. Just try to ask yourself: How is photographic creativity being impacted by this system when there are very low percentages of success? What kind of influence does it have on the frequency image-makers produce images? Do they take the right amount of time to reflect on their work? Do they sometimes adapt their aesthetic to the winning trends? Isn’t this likely to contribute to flattening the breadth of visual storytelling? And ultimately, how does this “race for the prize” translate into the human ingredient, that is to say the way they relate to colleagues and industry gatekeepers? I don’t have the answers, but photographers do. That’s why I am writing this, in the hope that organizations that hold contests would be encouraged to listen to the image-makers who participate in them, for without them open calls would not even exist. And we curators and editors who sit in the juries, are called to listen to them, too. There are important steps to be taken—starting to talk about it is only the beginning. I sincerely hope this will be the first of many other conversations.
Rica is a freelance curator, editor, and writer specializing in photography. She regularly contributes to Vogue Italia and Il Giornale dell’Arte, where she co-edits the Photography section. She has interviewed prominent figures in photography and reviewed exhibitions, books, and photographic projects by both established and emerging artists. Rica is also an exhibition manager for festivals, institutions, and non-profit organizations, producing and designing over 30 exhibitions annually. In 2017 she co-founded the curatorial collective Kublaiklan. Her curatorial research focuses on collaborative and cross-disciplinary practices, photographic installations in public spaces, and projects that explore visual literacy and the production, dissemination, and consumption of photographic images. Rica has curated exhibitions at various international events, including the PhotoVogue Festival and Photolux Festival, where she was a member of the Artistic Direction Board in 2022. Additionally, she teaches Exhibition Design for Photography at IED in Turin.