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Supporting photographers by challenging the system

Early last decade, photography was not a prominent part of Sydney’s cultural landscape. The medium was still finding its feet in art circles. Australia was producing good photographers but many were not getting the exposure they deserved because dominant names were recycled again and again in the few accolades available to the art form.

In 2004, the Head On Portrait Prize launched as an alternative way for talented photographers to bypass roadblocks and build their name. A distinguishing feature was an anonymous judging system that levelled the playing field for all Australian photographers.

“I had no idea what I wanted to happen,” said Head On director Moshe Rosenzveig. “Something just told me that we could do better – Australian photographers could do better with the resources we have.”

By selecting purely on the power of a photograph and not by the celebrity of the photographer or subject, Head On has gone from strength to strength – and it has brought Australian photography along for the climb.

By 2009 it had grown to be Australia’s largest photographic portrait prize and expanded into a festival operating under the same inclusive ethos. As of 2012, the Head On is the world’s second largest photographic festival, running more than 200 events and exhibitions in over 100 venues and galleries.

“We don’t need to follow the rules,” said Rosenzveig, “We challenge the system.”

The festival is an annual boon to the photographic industry. Come May and June everybody in Sydney is thinking about photography: printers are busy, the city is filled with images and galleries are filled with potential buyers.

But the most important contribution Head On makes is its fostering of a generous and egalitarian environment for Australian photographers to find recognition and inspiration for their work.

The festival receives minimal funding as is built largely on in-kind donations of time, money and expertise. It relies on – and in turn greatly contributes to – the skills of the local photographic industry.

It is also open to helping a good cause: In 2010, the festival exhibited work by Afghan photographers (AINA agency) and auctioned the images, sending the revenue back to the photographers. In 2011, the festival offered photography workshops to disadvantaged inner-Sydney children and included their work in the program.

As a multi-layered system that supports photographers at all stages of their development, Head On gives unknown photographers the chance to be seen, established professionals opportunities to get to the next level and the public a chance to see the brightest names in the business alongside those who aspire to follow in their foot steps.

“People who have never shown their work have an opportunity to stand up and deliver,” said Rosenzveig. “But we don’t compromise on quality. A photographer has to have talent – but nothing else – to be seen at Head On.”

It is not just emerging photographers who appreciate a hand up.

Sam Harris enjoyed a successful photographic career in the UK before moving to an isolated Western Australian town. For him, encountering Head On was an important way to make connections in a new country.

“Head On has been a great benefit to my photography career here in Australia,” he said.

“Showing my work in Sydney was an excellent way to meet people in the industry as well as the public. I received a lot of attention from the media in their coverage of the festival, which raised my profile and lead to other other opportunities. Having my work in the portrait prize (2011) was invaluable as it is a highly respected award.”

The same year, Harris took out the Momento Pro Photobook of the Year Award, leading to more exposure still. Head On awards are a major boost to the careers and notoriety of winners with both commercial and artistic aspirations.

“I won the Head On Portrait Prize in 2010 and the accolades have given me a lot of kudos to approach clients in big publishing houses and the ability to work with design agencies on art based projects,” said Fiona Wolf, who also featured as a finalist in the 2012 Portrait Prize.

“Head On has definitely gotten my name out there. I was offered a job as a result of a contact noticing my winning portrait in the Head On Portrait Prize. The structure of Head On has been a great support, promoting my exhibitions and making the opportunity possible in the first place. It’s almost like a mentorship that has stemmed from Head On’s belief in my ability as an artist.”

In 2011 Katrin Koenning was a finalist and winner of the Head On Portrait Prize, Critic’s Choice Award. Soon after, he festival invited her back to show work at MiCK Gallery as part of the core program in 2012.
“Having a solo show at MiCK was fantastic – the gallery is of a very high standard,” she said.

“I had a fantastic time at my opening and met a lot of passionate and interesting people from within the industry that night (and throughout the duration of the festival) some of which have become close friends. A bunch of image sales resulted directly from the show, and the all-around level of exposure was great. I commend the organisers and countless hard-working volunteers for their commitment and ongoing dedication to the industry, and to helping artists expose their work to a new audiences.”

By Lyndal Irons

Head On is a massive festival run with just three core staff and an army of volunteers. Every time you upload an entry, buy a ticket to a seminar or renew your membership you help ensure the festival survives for another year and that artists receive the support and publicity they need to reach their potential. The festival is still rapidly growing and needs your support. Enjoy the 2013 program as it is announced.

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 are open now. $80,000 prize pool including finalists exhibition.

Image detail: Gary Ramage