Is £250 too small a prize?

The launch of a student photo competition elicited virtually no entries, says Lizzie Wells
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The Independent Online

Where did we go wrong? All we wanted to do was to give £250 to a student! The London Society has funds - not huge amounts, but sufficient to spend a bit without suffering too much pain. It also has a journal that we think should reflect the 7.5 million people who live, work and study in London.

Where did we go wrong? All we wanted to do was to give £250 to a student! The London Society has funds - not huge amounts, but sufficient to spend a bit without suffering too much pain. It also has a journal that we think should reflect the 7.5 million people who live, work and study in London.

Last autumn, we decided to offer awards for excellence in photography and journalism. This venture could have several benefits: raising the society's profile; feeling the warm glow associated with extending a helping hand; spicing up the journal with some youthfulness, ethnic diversity and cultural freshness; and, perhaps, establishing a stronger pictorial and journalistic standard.

A total of £700 was allocated: two first prizes of £250 and £100 each for the two runners-up. A recent graduate and a head of graphics were consulted; both seemed to think these figures would attract attention. The winners would be given space for their features and the front cover for their pictures. The topic, "London at work", was thought to allow a wide interpretation, while relating firmly to London. Eligibility was initially restricted to students in higher and, for photography only, further education establishments within the London area.

The panels of judges presented a problem. We could not pay them, yet they must have sufficient weight to give the venture credibility. A stroke of fortune brought us an illustrious name in the world of specialist photography, and her expertise was balanced by a young librarian who specialises in photographic images of the people and streets of north London. We were equally fortunate with the journalism panel, who included the author of a recently acclaimed London guidebook, a teacher and writer with wide experience in radio and television.

All that remained was the administrative grind. Letters and leaflets were sent to heads of departments. Anyone interested was invited to visit our website and urged to request specimen copies of the journal before embarking on their submissions. Queries could be sent to our e-mail address.

The closing date for entries was 1 February 2004. The winners would be announced on the website on 31 March. Reaction was immediate. Two third-year journalism students requested specimen copies. One, Lucas, assured us jauntily that "you'll be getting something soon". By the second week in January, and the start of the new term, nothing more had been heard - from anyone.

Reminders went out to the heads of departments, extending the closing date by a week. It occurred to the editor that this should indicate that interest so far was not great. Perhaps a few of the less ambitious students might decide to have a go.

The only response was an intemperate e-mail from a head of photography, pointing out that his students felt "the prizes to be very poor", and some used the term "insulting - trying to get copy on the cheap". "On the cheap", indeed. Neither the editor nor the contributors get paid. We thought we were being generous.

What were we doing wrong? We are led to believe that students are debt-laden. So, is £250 really too little to attract interest? Is it possible that student photographers and journalists can command professional rates and have their novice offerings eagerly snatched up by studios and editors? Don't they have to produce portfolios of published work? Our final count was two entries from FE photography students, neither of whom had seen a copy of the journal or seemed to have even read the rules. There was nothing at all from potential journalists - not even Lucas.

When the editor reported this bewildering tale to the committee, our chairman cited a comparable venture with which he had been concerned. In spite of a similar indifference, this well-known organisation persisted with its offer, to the point where now its award has become a much sought-after accolade. The chairman thinks that we should try again. I'm not so sure.

The writer is editor of The London Society Journal. The society was formed in 1912 to record the changing face of the city ( www.londonsociety.org.uk)

education@independent.co.uk

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