A $60,000 prize pool to turn photography on its head

Gina Fairley

Shaking up perceptions of photography, the Head On Photo Awards are soon to return with a $60,000 prize pool and renewed international focus.
A $60,000 prize pool to turn photography on its head
Detail of Roberto Falck's image Clay and Ash; 2017 Head On Portrait Prize; courtesy the artist

With an impact that is more akin to a head butt than the subtle click of a shutter, the Head On Photo Awards shake up perceptions of photography.

The Awards, which have been running for 14 years, has a prize pool of over $60,000 in cash and products and are presented alongside the Head On Festival, which stages an average of 150 exhibitions across Sydney in May. It has become one of the world’s most prestigious photography festivals.


Head On Photo Festival Founder and Artistic Director, Moshe Rosenzveig, said a philosophy of anonymity in the judging process ensures the awards are not a case of ‘the usual suspects’.

‘A lot of people tell us that it is the only competition they submit work to,’ he said. ‘And because of that, we get all sorts of stuff that other competitions are less likely to receive – and that is incredibly exciting and refreshing.’

The Head On Awards are currently open for entries in the categories of portrait, landscape, mobile and student. The entry fee is $30 per image. To learn more visit https://www.headon.com.au/awards

Cesar Dezfuli's photograph Passenger; 2017 Head On Portrait Prize; courtesy the artist

The Head On philosophy

Philanthropic organization Head On presents the Awards and Festival annually. ‘The name Head On came from the classic idea of the head shot, aka portraiture … but is also partly to do with taking photography ahead,’ said Rosenzveig.

Head On’s origins also lay in tackling the institutions head on, he added.

‘We think differently about what photography can be. We moved to democratise it, and it was a very important part of festival to get photography out there – not as an exclusive club or part of the art scene. I don’t go to meetings wearing black,’ he added with a laugh.

While Rosenzveig remembers suffering paper cuts from opening envelopes containing print submissions in the award’s early days, 14 years on the process has been digitised.   

Another change was introduced in 2009 when the award was extended to include an ideas seminar. This was the birthplace of the broader festival, which is now internationally recognised.

‘There was a huge uptake of digital cameras but most people didn’t know what to do with them,’ Rosenzveig said. ‘The [photography] lab culture had started to disappear and there was no longer a way to meet photographers – to hear different perspectives, the business side, and how photographers engage emotionally with their medium. Head On has filled that space.’  

Emmaline Zanelli's Bird Boy (Still Not Sam); 2017 Head On Portrait Prize; courtesy the artist

A good photo is not about a name

‘We developed an online judging system - an App - so that the judges cannot see the name of the photographer,’ said Rosenzveig.

‘The main thing we do differently to many other competition is that we have judges from all around the world and they don’t know the work of these people. The conversation is about merit. It is not scored as such.’

This year’s judges include picture editors from the New York Times and The Guardian, director of Beijing’s esteemed Three Shadows Photography Art Space, and others.

List of the 2018 Head On Award judges.

‘We change the judges every year. And to shake up the clichés, we might ask a museum photography curator to judge the mobile photo prize, for example, so they look with a fine art eye.’

You snap, we print

Rosenzveig explained that the other defining factor of the Head On Awards is that the organisation does all the printing of the selected images.

‘Once you pay your entry fee and submit your material we do everything after that – we print, we mount, we get your work to the gallery, we do publicity. We even take some works overseas to show at international photography festivals. We have been to New York, to Auckland, to China twice as well as other cities’ he explained.

‘With this philosophy everyone equal and has an equal chance. We present the pictures all at the same size so no one gets a bigger space – that is very important to our philosophy.’

How to be part of Australia’s biggest photo event:

The Head On Awards are open now, and close at 11pm (Sydney time) on Sunday 25 February 2018.

For details on how to submit your photos visit headon.com.au.

The Head On Photo Festival will be held from 5 – 20 May.  Winners will be announced on Sydney 4 May at the festival launch.

Prizes will be awarded for the best three images in each category and the exhibition prints of these will be retained by Head On Foundation and added to the Head On Collection. Copyright of the images remains the property of the photographer.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.