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The first time I entered a photography competition was on Facebook 6 or 7 years ago. The hosts encouraged people to upload travel photos and the competition was by popular vote. The one with the most likes wins. I entered this picture from the Guelaguetza Festival in Mexico:

Before there was even a chance for people to like it the hosts commented “nice photo. It’s a pity you can’t see her face”. You idiots. It wasn’t a photo of her face; it was a photo of her gorgeous hair ornament and the richly embroidered back of her outfit. But it was too late. They had trashed it in the eyes of anyone who might be inclined to vote for me. The hosts had trashed it! I was so pissed off I sent a message lambasting them and never went back.

Then several years ago I made a brief foray into ViewBug: “Join a global network
of creators and share your photos”. There are many competitions on ViewBug. So many I was overwhelmed. I lacked confidence, and felt my photos would be lost amongst the thousands of entries. Also they relentlessly sent an avalanche of emails advertising things happening on their site. Eventually I got so fed up I deleted my account.

A couple of years later I entered some competitions at LensCulture, “a photography network and online magazine about contemporary photography”. It’s a significant professional upgrade from ViewBug, and highly regarded in the industry. I entered five competitions during 2018 and 2019 and received some encouraging feedback. But in the end I also left LensCulture in disgust, mainly because of the review of this photo from the Pushkar Camel Fair in India:

This is my description of the photo:
He was walking along a busy pedestrian street in Pushkar, India, during the annual livestock festival. In one hand he rang a small bell, in the other he carried a begging bowl. Nothing could disturb him.

I didn’t think I actually had to point out that he had a spike through his tongue!

Anyway this is the review I got. To this day it makes me want to tear my hair out at such stupidity and ignorance:
The man in the background is pretty distracting.
(I actually think the man in the background is part of the story because of the way he’s looking at the sadhu, but it gets much worse than this difference of opinion.)
A more powerful portrait could have been made by interacting with the subject and asking for him to pose in front of a clearer background. The “sadhu” you find on busy streets are likely more performative than spiritual, so chances are he would gladly pose in exchange for some rupees.

I was to walk up to a man in a trance with a spike through his tongue and talk to him? And ask him to pose? Seriously? The lack of sensitivity is breath-taking.

So I moved on from LensCulture, and any other photography competitions. I still lacked confidence.

So it’s now 2020 and several months ago I had a conversation with Don about photography competitions. I admitted to myself and to Don something I’d not really faced before. I wanted to win. That was it. If I couldn’t win what was the point of entering? And since I lacked confidence I was unlikely to win so I just couldn’t be bothered. Also I’ve seen the results of competitions over the years and have often been completely bewildered by the judges’ choices. They frequently made no sense to me given the other entries they had to choose from; it all felt like a bit of a crapshoot so why bother.

Then three things happened. I received an email from Black Press Media about their annual west coast photography competition for Amateur Photographer of the Year; at almost the same time I received an email from Greenpeace about their photography competition for their 2021 calendar; soon after the lovely Lisa from One Ocean at a Time encouraged me to enter the annual TAPSA competition. TAPSA stands for Timothy Allen Photography Scholarship Award. I’d never heard of it.

Coincidentally at around the same time I went through a major internal shift, resulting in me saying YES; yes to life in a bigger way than I’d done before. These competitions had all just landed in my lap, they were all free to enter, so I said yes, WTF, I’ll enter them all!

Greenpeace was first and I was successful. Their 2021 calendar has the theme of wildlife mothers and babies, and this photo of orangutangs in Malaysia was chosen for their calendar:

Whoooohooo! Success! (Though in all honesty looking at the quality of most entrants I knew I had little competition).

The Timothy Allen Photography Scholarship Award is: offered to a total of 5 photographers. At TAPSA, we aim to highlight the work of lesser known photographers or those who we feel deserve a larger platform for their work. Entries will be judged solely by myself. I will be looking for those photographers showing the most ingenuity and originality as well as photographic excellence in both image making and story telling. Each image should be recognisable as travel or documentary photography.

The five winners will receive a ten day travel package to Sharjah, UAE including a five day location Workshop lead by myself (Dates will be finalised later in the year due to COVID-19). Winners will also receive entry to Xposure International Photography Festival and all auditorium and seminar sessions during the festival days. Winners will also join me for all private functions and events during the festival, present their work live on stage in Xposure’s main auditorium and have their work included in the TAPSA Exhibition at Xposure. Winners will also receive a private portfolio review with one of the world’s leading photography experts. Accommodation will be provided at a luxury hotel in Sharjah including all meals during your stay.

I knew I was aiming way above my pay grade, but said yes! It was there on my plate to do so I entered anyway.

I have two sisters who have both been professional photographers. I cannot overstate how much they helped me – from choosing the right photos, to detailed editing, framing, choosing black and white or colour, and more. I learned so much. I think of these almost as Suzanne’s and Julie’s photos because of the way they took my raw images and showed me how to make the most of them, but when I said as much Julie said: well you took them!

For the first time I started to feel confident about my photography, and I feel I have reached a new level with it. I also loved the process. We three sisters had screen sharing sessions showing our latest photography projects via Zoom and it was so much fun.

I was not selected. Those selected are all highly accomplished professional photojournalists, and when I look at their work my entry feels naively innocent. But I’m enormously proud of what I achieved, and share with you now the portfolio of photos I entered into the 2020 Timothy Allen Photography Scholarship Awards.

Sacred Prayer
Emei Shan in China is regarded as sacred to the large Buddhist population. Before the final flight of stairs up to the golden Buddha at the top there is a spacious landing stage. Here are candle racks and sand beds where devotees can make their prayers with incense and red candles. As with all religions it’s serious and sacred. Requests are made. Thanks are given. Some are blessed. Some are desperate. Who knows what each of them is going through. Something compels them to make the pilgrimage to Emei Mountain and to light incense and candles and to pray. It is a solemn moment.

Sparring Partners
This stopped me in my tracks. Of all the great variety of activities that take place on Vancouver’s summer beaches I’d not seen this before: two young women boxing. I was drawn to their focus and commitment along with their dancing movement.

Last Rites – Rishikesh, India
The belief in the cycle of birth and death is a strong part of the Hindu religion, as is the belief that offering your cremated ashes to the Ganges will release you from that cycle. Here on the rocky banks of the river, in an age-old sacred ritual, a man watches as a loved one burns.

First Snow – Montreal, Canada
The city was slowly being blanketed by snow. This kind of snowfall, with big soft flakes floating down, is magical even in an urban setting. The snow softens and transforms everything, but for the people who live here it’s just another winter day. I watch as they carry on with their lives as usual.

Two Old Dudes in a Café
My husband and I arrived early and chose the best seats for people watching. He first caught our attention with his irritated body language as he flung chairs out of his way: we were sitting in his seat! But then I realized that this was an example of Paris chic at its finest in a typical Paris café: the coat, the hat, the scarf, the sunglasses, the cigarette! Urban wildlife in its natural habitat.

Sadhu Reading – Rishikesh, India
There is a practice in India of retired men with a good pension renouncing a worldly life and following a path of spiritual discipline. They commonly migrate to India’s holy towns, especially those along the Ganges River. Seated on the ghats by the Ganga in silent solitude despite the busyness of the city all around him, this yogi quietly contemplates sacred scriptures in his quest to achieve liberation.

Primary Colours – Vancouver, Canada
In almost all parts of this city smoking is banned, so smokers must find a place away from the crowds. But for me this photo has nothing to do with the fact that she’s smoking, and little to do with the woman herself except for the colour of her dress and shoes. It was the colours that caught my eye; the three primary colours highlighted against the neutral grey background forming a minimalist, contemporary design.

Past and Present
On a pedestrian street in a Beijing hutong I saw her walk out to the street from the antique store with her walker. She immediately sat down on it in front of the poster evoking the Golden Era of Hollywood. She was not aware of her position in relation to the poster, but it was the striking juxtaposition of past and present, young and old, east and west, that led me to take the photo.

Geishas Dancing – Kyoto, Japan
At a small annual ceremony the geishas move with such deep grace that I am beguiled by their gravitas, and the devotion and reverence they have for their art. I am captivated by the elegant exquisite beauty of their outfits, and by their poise and presence. No matter what is happening around them, they are there, fully involved in each moment, presenting a rare stylised beauty.

Yeh Hai India Darling! – Rishikesh, India
Indian people have an entirely different idea about personal space than westerners. A very full load in one of these tuk tuks is ten people. There are at least 13 crammed into this one. A couple of people are looking a bit stressed but they travel like this anyway. That’s India Darling!

In case you’re interested here’s a link to the 2020 TAPSA winners.

Before entering I searched and searched without success to find the portfolios of previous winners to get a better idea of what was wanted. Looking at the photos of this year’s winners I do not feel that I’m so far behind them, but what they all have in common that I didn’t have, is a unified theme. They each told a story with multiple photos rather submitting a collection of individual photos. Next year I’ll know better!

I’ve not entered the Black Press Media competition yet. Entries close November 30 and I’m well under way with preparing the photos I want to submit. I need one last conference call with my sisters! I feel confident about this competition though not in the same way that I was with the Greenpeace one. In both cases I could see other entries and know that my photos are significantly better, however Greenpeace was selecting 12 photos from among hundreds. Black Press Media will be selecting 2 from among thousands. It will be what it will be. These days I’m so enjoying the process that it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Here are a few of the photos I plan to submit:

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.