December 3, 2011

Another Rejection

Receiving another rejection notice can be discouraging at best, and at worst can cause you to lose faith in your abilities and cause creative paralysis.

I have submitted my work to hundreds of shows, exhibitions and magazines; and while I have gotten in some, I have also received many rejections.  What is one to make of a rejection?  Does it mean your work is not good enough or are there other reasons why it might have been rejected?

To put a rejection into perspective I first ask myself “why did I submit to this event?”  Understanding your motives can be useful in understanding your reactions.  For example there was a time when I submitted my work to receive validation, to have someone say “your work is good.”  And of course when my work was not accepted I interpreted this to mean that my work was not good and perhaps I was not a good photographer.

But over time I have come to understand that my opinion of my work should be based on what I think of it and not what others think, and certainly not if it gets accepted into exhibitions!  One of my favorite quotes is: “What others think of you is none of your business” and likewise what others think of my art is none of my business; my opinion is the only one that matters. That is not to say that I do not enjoy exhibiting or receiving compliments about my art, but there is a difference between enjoying compliments and needing them to feel good about oneself and ones art.

So back to the rejection letter and what it might mean. The first possibility that I had to face was that my work was not good enough. It is very difficult to objectively evaluate your own work and even harder still to admit that it may not be good enough, but we must do that if we are going to improve. Rejection can be a good thing if it leads to change and improvement.

But from my experience, a rejection can often mean something else much more innocent. Juror’s like anyone else have their own tastes, likes and dislikes. They tend to choose images that they personally like and that’s not a statement about your work. To increase the odds of my work being accepted I would research the juror’s own work and exhibitions they had juried to see what type of images they liked. If my images were in stark contrast to their preferences, I would skip that submission.

For example I used to regularly submit to Shots Magazine even though their selections were “younger” and more “hip” than my work. I never got in and that bothered me so much that I irrationally set a goal of submitting until I got in, which I never did. It took a while before I realized that this was simply not the right venue for my work and it was not a reflection on the quality of my work. It simply wasn’t a good fit.

Another selection factor is how your image fits in with the other images in the exhibition. A juror doesn’t just choose the “best” images but actually creates a new body of work by combining the individual images into a purposeful and intentional grouping. Sometimes images are chosen because they tie in with other of the juror’s selections, which is again not a reflection on the quality of your work.

And then there is the “different” factor. I’ve had jurors tell me that they see so many images that they end up looking for ones that are simply different. If “different” is not your style and you’re more of a traditional photographer, your work may not be selected by that juror.



There are so many reasons why an image may not be selected and so many of them have nothing at all to do with the quality of your work.  That is why it’s so important that you believe in your work and continue to improve and persevere.  Everyone has rejections and the people who win in the end, are the ones who do not give up.


Strategies for Improving the Odds:

Over time I devised a strategy that allowed me to improve my odds of getting my work selected, here is what I did:

1.  You must have good work, and “good” is more about the composition and feeling your image evokes rather than its technical quality.  From my experience a juror will almost always pick an emotional image with poor technical quality over a technically perfect image that has no feeling or soul.

2.  Research the juror and their personal tastes.  Does your work fit in?  Can you select images for submission that seems to be more in keeping with their preferences?   Are there jurors that have similar tastes as you, if so submit to shows that they are jurying.

3.  Focus on the smaller exhibitions that are likely to have fewer submissions and less on the really big exhibitions.  I’d rather submit five images to a show with 500 submissions than submit five to a show with 5,000. Also look for shows that extend their deadlines, that often means they have received fewer entries than they expected.  Let the numbers work in your favor.

4.   Submit as many images as you can afford.  Submitting five images versus one dramatically increases your odds.  Look for shows that are offering discounts, this will allow you to enter more images and improve your odds even more.

5.  Submit a variety of styles. I often would see someone submit five images and they were all virtually identical in subject and style. I would submit five very different images, figuring that if the  juror didn’t like one then another might appeal to them. This is one of the best strategies I pursued to increase my odds.

6.  Select images that you love and have a passion for. In the beginning I would survey friends and family to try to pick images that had the widest appeal. That approach never improved my odds and it left me feeling conflicted and uncertain. You should pick images that you’re passionate about and forget what others think. I do not know how it works, but your passion does make a difference and improves your chances of getting accepted.

By using these techniques I was able to achieve a 50% success rate; meaning that for every two submissions I’d get into one. Some of that was accomplished by improving my art and some of it by using these techniques.  Use both to improve your odds.


Rejection is a part of the artist’s life and while you can never remove it, you can reduce it.  And more importantly you can better deal with rejection when you believe in your art and understand that the rejection was just another person’s opinion.

In the end, you must be pleased with your work regardless of what others think.


30 thoughts on “Another Rejection

  1. A very timely article for me since submissions are my focus for 2012. So much great advice and wisdom contained here, as usual. Your favorite quote may be my new motto!

  2. Thanks Cole,I agree with all of these points. It’s true that the juror is creating a larger work of art by combining the choices that he or she makes. The rejection shouldn’t be taken personally but it sure is frustrating.

  3. Timely…I just gave a workshop that addressed all of this at our local arts organization. And I agree with almost all of what you said. In fact, much sounded exactly like I said it too. Must be all those shared rejection experiences. Two points I disagree with you on. the first is that you will get even further if your work has that emotional quality AND is technically well done. Don’t discount the value and power of both combined. That will imporve your chances even better. The other thing is that I have always felt that if you are choosing to enter shows where you feel strongly that your work will fit, then it is better to show a consistant body of work vs. being all over the map. If you only goal is to get in…then your idea of varied work is good. But if you have done your research and want to get in for the long term benefit to being in a show at that space, then being known for a perticular body of work that is consistant is of a big benefit. As opposed to throuwing it all out there and hoping to hit with one. Just my opinions though. I might try your idea some day.

  4. As everyone has said… great advice! One of the interesting point/counterpoints is whether to submit by showing a “consistent body of work” or by showing the “diversity of your talents.” I have done “both” and have found that when hoping or knowing that one image might be selected for a group show or contest the “diversity” approach seems to often work. Whereas when applying for a possible solo show, the “consistent body of work” obviously seems to make more sense.

    I do like your point about picking the work that you personally feel most strongly about and committed to (at the time of making the images and) when you review the candidates for possible submission.

    I submit for the same reason I like to sell. I enjoy knowing someone else has an emotional connection with the image.

    Thanks Cole… another nice blog!


  5. A few quick comments…Thanks for the additions and comments, it’s good to hear a variety of ideas.

    David, yes we all know intellectually not to take it personally, but I find that inside I’m still a child with an easily bruised ego!

    Juliet, yes an emotional image and a technically perfect image is always best!

    James, yes 1&6 are the most important. I try to use all six when possible, it increases your chances!

    Gary, you make a great point that I wish I had better explained. If you’re submitting for a solo show you generally would submit a cohesive body of work and not submit varied images!!! An important point that I’m glad you pointed out.


  6. Great commentary as usual especially those regarding juror’s and their intention to pull a cohesive show together from all selected entries. I had those very same thoughts last month as I stood in line to submit to a local show . I received lots of compliments on my work from a broad range of people but somehow I knew looking at the bulk of submissions that this would not be my day. I have previously had work selected by this same juror in other shows and awards

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on improving one’s chances. Perhaps an extension to this post would be to discuss your thoughts / motivations behind the *why* in submitting work? Perhaps the answer(s) is / are obvious…. but…. Perhaps one reason is that potential buyers of ones work want to be “comforted” by the knowledge that the artist/photographer has been “published”?

    Happy Holidays!

  8. Cole,
    As always, thank you for sharing this information. I don’t know many people who would openly admit they experienced a rejection of any form. You’ve taught me to create images for myself and that’s what I do now. Having said this, the child in me wants approval. We are programmed early in life to seek approval and as an adult, it’s hard to abandon this desire.


  9. I don’t particularly like the work “rejection.” The dictionary definition includes, “dismiss as inadequate, inappropriate, or failing to meet a standard.” I prefer to think of my photograph submissions as being selected or not selected, which could be for a variety of reasons. Rejection at its roots rekindles childhood fears and shame: of not being invited to a birthday party, or if you were invited, no one talked to you, or of being dropped by your best friend for another best friend. Rejection sucks if we take rejection as proof of our inadequacies or if we feel that the person doing the rejecting is superior or more knowledgeable than we are. The only way to avoid rejection is to not take risks, in life, or by not submitting photographs, or by only sharing them with people who love us and who always give us praise, or by not pushing ourselves to the limits of our creativity. I’d prefer to keep putting myself out there, but consider a 50% acceptance rate rather than a 50% rejection rate.

    Thanks for another interesting blog and great advice.


  10. Thank you Cole for sharing. Im so agree with you. Its depending of what you see and what you like in your work/picture, thats what matter. In the next follow, its nice if someone gives you feedback. I have always have fun and I really like to make picture. This emotional feeling I have when I make picture; no one can take from me. good shoot.

  11. Wonderful moment for this blog post, Cole. My colleagues and I just received a rejection for our collective submission to a national exhibition … and we now find some really interesting points here to use as a starting point for our reflections.

    Your point #6 is probably one of the most underrated points… but to follow that point also means to be ready to get hurt. Being rejected with your most beloved shots requires more self esteem than being rejected with something mediocre. 🙂
    This is where building up a group/team/collective of constructive fellow photographers comes in handy. They can serve as critics, as devils advocates as well as mental supporters. It’s much easier than dealing with rejections on your very own.


  12. Thanks for sharing your tips with us Cole! I have found most photography competitions and/or exhibits want to feature “edgy” images, or images that make a strong statement.

    I am also not really a nature photographer so that leaves me out of that category as well.

    Thanks again for another great post!

  13. I entered three images in the UK magazine Outdoor Photographer OPOTY 2011 competition. I was shortlisted, but got no further. I thought my images fitted the criteria and gave me goosebumps when I looked at them. They touched a nerve with my becausse I was involved with the images and the situation (I found a beached whale) but sadly the judges disagreed. Oh well.

  14. Relax. When you’re pleased with your shot take it and then sort out how you feel about it later when in vacant or in pensive mood. Whoever judges your print submitted has a certain ‘taste’ and you’ll never know how it is exercised on your art/work. Close your eyes to the rejection letter and move on.

  15. Great post Cole! I am definitely sharing this with my students.
    As someone who submits to competitions and also is a juror, here are a few of my insights:

    Don’t submit more than the lowest images required (sometimes it’s 3, or more, or less)–if they don’t like your 3, they aren’t going to like your 10.

    Submit images from the same body of work-if the juror likes the work, then they can select more than one to hang side by side. If you submit an image of a flower and an image of a truck, the juror is going to pick one or the other.

    Send the best files–no dust spots or over photoshopping (over sharpening and over saturating are the two biggest complaints I hear from gallerists and jurors about work).

    Use your rejection to learn something. Once I get over the sting of being rejected, I take the time to try and understand what the juror was looking for and the exhibition that he or she has created. Even when I’ve been rejected, I let the juror know what a terrific show it is.

    Try to objective, but remember that art is subjective!

  16. Hi Cole!
    I find this post very useful. I am “young” to photography and all your advice is of special value to me. I have no problems with accepting rejections:) I know that’s good for me:) What’s made me surprised is the idea of submitting works of different styles. I have always had a feeling that I may be perceived as the person who has no style and maybe doesn’t know what she wants. Thanks for opening my eyes:)
    Happy New Year:)



    I’m dealing with rejection with a glass of Orange Juice. I’ve just seen the winners of the OPOTY 2011 competition. Three of my images were shortlisted in the endangered species category.

    I did find a beached whale after all, I helped the whale, I initiated a rescue operation by alerting the authorities and took some photo’s of an endangered species in strife.

    Now the winning photographer in my catergory all they had to do was go to a zoo and point their camera through the bars of a tigers cage.

    Pass me something stronger!

    Nah. Congratulations to the winnners even if I have seen better photo’s of Bison covered in snow.

  18. I was so crushed that the two shows I submitted my work to had rejected me. It has taken me a few days to allow the grief to subside and just ran across your article by chance. Such soothing and coherent advice — I thank you so much for this.

  19. As always Cole very insightful.

    There are so many factors involved in being accepted or rejected… some I have learned are so silly, I no longer concern myself.

    At the end of the day… exhibiting is great for your ego and CV, but requires a great deal of time, money and effort.

    Which might be better served just taking photographs that please yourself!

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