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WPPI Awards: Are print contests dead?

WPPI, the premier international event for wedding and portrait photographers, is ‘pausing’ its highly-anticipated photography contests and Honors of Excellence program until 2024 to ‘reassess its current format’.

The popular print-based WPPI Awards are a major component of the annual WPPI conference and expo in Las Vegas, with live judging of 16×20 prints, albums, and videos. Much like the now-defunct AIPP awards system, the WPPI live judging panel awards points up to 100, and photographers earn titles, such as Master and Grand Master.

As well as a personal achievement, these titles become marketing tools for photographers to advertise themselves. Who wouldn’t want a Grand Master of Photography handling their wedding?

Photography publication, Rangefinder, which shares the same parent company as WPPI, the publicly-listed Emerald Holding, attributes the hiatus to the Awards only reaching ‘a fraction of the wider WPPI community’. It’s apparently being ‘reimagined to be better and bigger moving forward’, although many pundits suggest this marks an end to the awards.

For over 10 years WPPI has been owned by Emerald Holding, a major event management company that operates over 55 industry trade expos. As the story goes, WPPI was originally acquired in 2010 by Nielsen Expositions, which re-named to Emerald Expositions in 2013, and re-branded again to Emerald Holding in 2020.

Reading between the lines it appears the WPPI Awards aren’t profitable, nor primed for growth, nor hitting whatever metric measures its viability. And after a shocker couple of years for the events industry, it’s not surprising Emerald Holding is tightening the belt to bounce back.

Covid-19 lockdowns led to worldwide event cancellations, causing Emerald Holding revenue to tumble by a whopping 87 percent in Q1 2021. But even beforehand, industry trade shows and expos have gone slightly out of vogue. The Emerald Holding share price on the New York Stock Exchange has been in steady decline for several years, going from US$20.67 at the beginning of 2018 down to US$3.12 now.

Photography events only makes up a small fraction of Emerald Holding’s brand portfolio. A 2016 Investor Presentation graph shows most revenue, 38 percent, comes from Gift, Home and General Merchandise events, followed by Sports at 22 percent. Technology only accounts for eight percent of revenue.

But with the contest operating in various forms for over three decades, many long-time WPPI attendees want the annual print competition to be preserved. As noted by one WPPI attendee, the Awards is the heart that pumps blood through the expo, and entering or attending the live judging is a driving factor for many to travel to Las Vegas for the event.

‘Photographers come to this competition first, and then sign up for classes/photowalks/speakers and attend the expo,’ she said in the WPPI Awards public Facebook group. ‘Whether or not they are competing now, they are wanting to compete so they educate themselves at this conference. What happens when you remove the heart of anything? It f—ing dies. Don’t do this.’

WPPI judging. Source: WPPI 2021 promo video/YouTube.

Devastated photographers make up the vast majority of the Facebook group comments. Many highlight how the contest has been integral to their professional development, and small fortunes have been spent earning WPPI titles. They are asking Emerald Holding to carefully reconsider axing the print-based contest from the upcoming event.

‘This is absolutely devastating and incredibly shortsighted. Instead of taking away the print competition it should be celebrated, championed, and promoted wildly. The education given at the live print and judging is simply the most superior part of the convention,’ wrote leading wedding photographer and WPPI Grand Master, Susan Stripling. ‘Print competition at WPPI made me the photographer that I am today. Taking it away, even for a year, will completely change the tone of the event and deprive artists of this experience. Pausing it is not the answer.’

(After becoming an WPPI Grand Master, Stripling published a blog post describing how much the achievement meant to her, and the importance of the contest to her professional development.)

‘Taking away print comp is going to cause a significant decrease in attendance and I would strongly recommend you reconsider,’ wrote Bill Stank. ‘Print comp added tremendous value to this convention as compared to the other conventions out there.’

‘You’ve just killed WPPI as a destination event,’ wrote Craig Minielly.

‘I’m so disappointed. Print competition changed my life and has been the single most educational resource I’ve had in my 17 year professional career,’ wrote Melody Smith. ‘I was about to receive my Triple Master this year, putting me in the home stretch to Grand Master. This goal took years. I can’t imagine how the photographers who were going to be announced as Grand Masters this year feel. This is an absolute travesty to our industry. ‘

And on it goes for over 100 comments. So even if Emerald Holding has determined the Awards don’t hit that KPI or aren’t profitable, it’s apparently bringing attendees to Las Vegas who then participate in the more profitable components of WPPI.

The WPPI Awards are organised by Australian photographer, Jerry Ghionis, and his wife Melissa Ghionis, who are now based in Las Vegas. According to statements published on Facebook, Emerald Holding appears to have informed them a few days before going public.

‘I want you to know that Melissa Ghionis and I were not involved in that decision. We are devastated and so saddened by the news. We know how much this competition means to the worldwide community. It has certainly help shape my career as it has done to countless others. Since redefining the competition and introducing the Honors of Excellence program almost 10 years ago, we have bled for this competition. We feel your pain.’

WPPI judging. Source: WPPI 2021 promo video/YouTube.

Are print contests relevant?

It’s telling that in less than 12 months, two juggernaut print photography contests have been cancelled after decades in operation, the AIPP and WPPI Awards. Both are remarkably similar – almost identical with the live judging, prints, scoring, titles. No surprise an Australian, who was an active AIPP member, was behind ‘redefining’ the WPPI Awards.

There are unique challenges that come with operating print awards. The pool of entrants is much lower due to the time, work, and costs associated with producing a print. Especially in an over-saturated photo contest market, with no shortage of digital image competitions where entrants simply have to re-size and name an image file, and fork out about US$20.

And as noted by WPPI entrants, the live judging is a major attraction, meaning booking flights and accommodation in Las Vegas to attend WPPI, and photographers must justify the additional costs associated with entry.

And Emerald Holding must also justify the overheads of running the Awards, which includes event planning, hiring and setting up the room, and paying staff and perhaps the judges.

Printed photography has merit. Digital can’t compete with the experience of getting up close to a beautiful professional print, then stepping back to take it all in. But the harsh reality is the medium is less relevant than ever. The aficionados are still out there, but are few and far between.

And many print photography awards, including the AIPP’s and WPPI’s, were founded decades ago when – apart from loupes and lightboxes, print was fundamentally the only way to experience photography. So it’s understandable organisations are now questioning the relevance of their print photo contests. It’s a question the AIPP grappled with for many years, which folded the day after entries closed for the print awards with too few submissions to make it economical.

‘Without underwriting from membership revenue and AIPP sponsorship these awards have not been sustainable for a very long time. In 2021, the number of entries received generated revenue equivalent to only 58 percent of the costs to run APPA (Australian Professional Photography Awards),’ the AIPP board said in its closing statement. ‘As AIPP does not have sufficient cash reserved to make up the shortfall costs of APPA, it is not financial viable to hold APPA.’

Are these contests antiquated traditions of a bygone era? Is this tradition worth preserving? And if it’s not financially viable, then how?

The inaugural Australian Photographic Prize proves print contests ain’t dead yet. As one of the few print-based photo contests launched in the last decade, the contest garnered over one hundred more entries into the print awards than the digital image contest. Perhaps it’s a case of ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’, as many of the winners are former AIPP members.

If the WPPI Awards returns with a similar print-based structure, Emerald Holding will pay close attention to the only factor that matters to shareholders – the numbers. Growth and profitability. It’ll be over to WPPI attendees, from first-timers to Grand Masters, to show management the Awards are worth it.

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