UPDATED: Is the photo community OK with Sal Cincotta winning his own pay-to-enter photography contest?

by Jaron Schneider

posted Friday, April 28, 2017 at 6:21 PM EDT

 
 

UPDATE 05/01/2017 02:21 PM ET: Added statement from WPPI, clarifying that employees are prohibited from entering any photo competition put on by WPPI, PDN, or any other organizations that are part of the Photo+ Group. Added a statement from Cincotta that he claims no financial interest due to lack of cash prizes.

Shutterfest is a recurring photography conference that has, as a key part, an image competition. The Shutterfest photo contest asks photographers in the wedding, portrait, landscape and creative fields to put up their best work to be judged by a host of notable names in the industry (there are some very well-known photographers on this list of judges). Each photo submitted, up to 25 entries, costs $25 (or $35 for late submissions), and the winners were recently posted. Normally winners of a private photo competition aren't big news, but the identity of the winner in this case is the source of community uproar: Sal Cincotta, the owner of Shutterfest, just won the grand prize and 11 top-three finishes across the total of 17 categories in the Shutterfest Image Competition.

In addition to winning the Grand Jury Award, Cincotta placed in the top three of several categories:

  • 1st place - Creative/Commercial
  • 1st place - Creative/Fashion
  • 2nd place - Portrait/Engagement
  • 3rd place - Portrait/General
  • 1st & 2nd place - Portrait/Seniors
  • 1st, 2nd, & 3rd place - Wedding/Couple together
  • 1st & 2nd place - Wedding/Alone 

For many who have entered photography contests before, this result felt wrong. Members of the popular SubReddit r/photography were vocal about their opinions on the owner of a contest winning the contest. One user said that “Considering that they were taking money off of people - per photo - it looks like a load of people just got mugged,” while another said that regardless of the legality or rules of the competition, “it's super shady. The appearance of impropriety alone is trouble enough.”

Cincotta was quick to defend his win on his Facebook, and stated that his reason to enter his own contest was because he is “a competitor.”

 
 

In Cincotta’s public post, he makes a point to address the importance of that competition to him (as a note, all quotes from Cincotta are directly taken from that post, and no grammar or spelling was corrected):

“The answer is simple for me. I am a competitor. Competition pushes me and it pushes the people around me to raise the bar. I have been entering competition for 7+ years… Why would I not enter ShutterFest? I want it to be a major competition and if I don’t believe in it enough to enter - why would others? While I realize everyone may not share this philosophy, again, it’s pretty standard.”

Backing this, one of the many judges on the panel, Hannah Marie told Imaging Resource, “My hope is that the results motivate more people to enter and challenge the level of photography for the coming year! I didn't enter this year because there was so much going on in my personal life the deadline snuck up on me. The first year of image comp at Shutterfest I won first place in the bride and groom together category and the only thing that could have made that any sweeter was if Cincotta was competing too and I beat him or placed second or third to him.”

Ms. Marie made a point about the competition being better with Cincotta in the running, and that his involvement means that if anyone did beat him, it would mean more than if he was not involved.

When asked how it was possible to not be swayed by knowing or recognizing an image, another judge, Michael Corsentino, said, “the instruction was if you feel you can't judge the image fairly, you were to recuse yourself from the judging panel.” He went on to say, “I never recognized an image as Sal’s, so it was never an issue for me.”

Jeff Rojas, another judge from Shutterfest, explained how he believes the judging situation was conducted fairly.

“We are all hired to judge the event,” he said. “Each with a different line of work and portrait photographers judge portrait, wedding judge wedding. I judged fashion, engagement and beauty and landscapes. There are four judges to every room. Everything is blind judging, no names, no information. About 97% of our judging was within 3 or 4 points of one another,” Rojas explained. “Judgement was based on only what they saw, nothing else. So being so close in judgment to me, was huge,” he emphasized. “Any of us can challenge a judgment on an image and call for a rejudge of an image. Total throughout the day, we had that happen less than 10 times and we judged about 300 images. So for us to be that close on blind judging was huge.”

Rojas went on to explain that this method was not one they created. “For it to be fair, this is how PPA has done it and WPPI has done it, and I think Sal has taken a lot of interest in wanting to keep that scoring tactic.”

Rojas went on to say why he believed Cincotta’s images did not get special treatment. “If you cannot morally say that you will stand there and not judge an image based only on what it is and not take into account any prior knowledge you had of the image, if you can’t make a critique based only on scoring, you have to leave the table. So if I knew who made it, and disagreed with the process, then I would have to leave the table. If I knew who shot the photo based on the style, if I could not judge it based on the image itself and I had to put my disposition based on a personal connection I had to leave the table,” he explained.

Rojas continued, “To me, if anyone said that they did not recognize Sal’s images, they are either lying or they aren’t paying attention. Because he markets Shutter magazine the way he does his work, you have to be blind not to know his work. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, but it’s how I feel.”

But that said, Rojas believes it’s possible to judge Sal’s images just as fairly as any else’s. “Sal put himself to the same level of judgment as anyone else. It was up to the judges to recuse themselves if they did not feel they could not judge fairly.”

Rojas did say that he and Cincotta do not always see eye to eye, and that is probably why Cincotta insisted Rojas be a judge. “Me personally, I would not enter my own competition. Here is an example: If I’m a personal trainer and I have a ton of people that I’m trying to train, I think it’s a little unfair as a personal trainer to go out and say, ‘Ok, now I am going to compete with you on the same level.’”

But at the same time, Rojas respects the decision for Cincotta to include himself. “On that same note, if you don’t have the ability to compete with someone you want to beat, how do you know where you stand?”

For the judges we spoke to, if including Cincotta’s work in the competition increased the challenge of said competition, it was worth having his participation.

One comment that recurred was that Cincotta believed he was doing exactly what was commonplace in the industry.

“I am truly not looking for a discussion here - and I am hoping that once you have facts, you will understand why this becomes less of a scandalous story.

“There were 20 seasoned and talented judges at the event. Judges who are certified PPA judges and have both judged and chaired for PPA and WPPI.

“Judging was conducted blindly and in a public room with dozens upon dozens of attendees watching and listening to the scores and critiques.

“Judges and chairs are encouraged to enter the competition.

“Rules and scoring is almost identical to WPPI AND PPA along with many other competitions around the world. this covers how to deal with what to do if your own image comes up or if you know the maker of an image - how to recuse yourself, etc. It is not uncommon for a judge or chair - to have entered competition and their images come up right in front of them. While this is blind scoring - (you don’t know the maker of the image - no logo, name, etc) for the actual judges - it becomes the honor system for the actual judges.”

As Imaging Resource felt it was odd that it was commonplace for those with a direct conflict of interest to be encouraged to enter their own competition, we looked into the rules of WPPI, and therefore Photo District News, to see how it read.

The WPPI rules state, in no uncertain terms, that “Employees of Photo District News, and each of their affiliates, subsidiaries and agents, and their immediate family members (spouse, parent, child, sibling and their respective spouses, regardless of where they live) or persons living in the same households of such individuals, whether or not related, are not eligible to enter or win a prize.” (Clarification, 5/1/17: The link above mentions WPPI rules, but points to rules for a contest run by PDN. WPPI and PDN are both owned by the Photo+ Group, and rules about employee participation in contests are the same across all sites owned by them. See the statement from a WPPI spokesperson below, for a full and explicit description of their policies in this area.) 

Cincotta was not a judge or chair of the photo competition, but rather the owner (employee) of the business upon which the competition existed. He was not tasked with judging, but rather tasked with sales, marketing and operations. This is a distinction that is important to make, and what separates his case from those he is referencing at PPA and WPPI.

To get more information on the subject, we spoke with Roslyn J. Kitchen, a Partner in the promotion law firm of Cohen Silverman Rowan LLP, which provides counsel for promotion and marketing legal issues. After I explained the situation, Ms. Kitchen said although she does not have direct knowledge of this particular contest or circumstances, “as a matter of industry practice, sponsors, and their employees and anyone else they engage to be involved with a promotion are ineligible and should not be permitted to enter or win a prize in the contest.” 

“Generally speaking,” she told us. “anyone who has the ability or even potential ability to unfairly influence the outcome of the promotion would and should be ineligible to enter. As a lawyer who drafts the official contest rules, and even my family members, are prohibited from entering contests that I am associated with. To not do so could implicate the objectivity and thus veracity of the contest.”

Even if there was no intention to cheat, sponsors take great steps to avoid its possibility and appearance. “It’s like having undue influence over someone, or an unfair competitive advantage,” she said. “A contest is supposed to be entirely objective and fair, and that is why you’re allowed to ask for consideration (entry fee) in order to participate --  that entrant  has by their skill, time or effort, certain ability to control the outcome i.e. whether they may be picked as a winner.”

According to Ms. Kitchen, when entry fees flow back to the sponsor of a contest, who is likely to have been involved in selecting the judges for that contest and the sponsor is also an entrant and prize winner, then this could potentially have the appearance to Regulators of compromising the integrity of the contest for the rest of the folks who participated and paid their entry fee. 

Ms. Kitchen concluded, “It is absolutely standard in our industry, and I believe in every single contest I have ever been counsel to that if anyone has any direct or indirect involvement in that contest and thus could potentially unfairly influence the contest in any way, then they are not permitted to enter or win. This assures that the objectivity,  fairness, and integrity of the sponsor’s contest is upheld.” 

When Cincotta won his own competition, many in the comments on his post regarding his win as well as in public discussion forums asked about the ethics of that win, and explained how it looked from their perspective:

  • Shutterfest and Sal Cincotta advertised a contest with prizes that required an entry fee.
  • Shutterfest and Sal Cincotta took entry fees from people who were hopeful to win said prizes and attain notoriety for their work
  • Sal Cincotta entered his own images to his own contest, where paying the entry fee equates to paying himself (as he owns the business operation).
  • Sal Cincotta then proceeded to win multiple categories and the Grand Jury award.
  • Shutterfest and Sal Cincotta effectively kept all the entry money (minus costs of putting on the event) and well as many of the advertised prizes.

In response to the last allegation, Cincotta replied, “I got prizes??? That's news to me. Man... so many people know so many things. It's no wonder people are furious. We should focus this energy on real world problems. How did you get all these FACTS above? This is why I don't engage.” He continued, “Because you don't listen. Did u enter the comp? No? Let those people worry and ask the questions if they feel slighted.”

 
 

Cincotta seems to dismiss the idea that there were any prizes to win, yet his contest page says otherwise:

"We will have over $2000 in prizes and a chance to have your studio and images featured in Shutter Magazine. Winners will be printed and displayed at ShutterFest 2017.

"Each category winner will receive a prize from one of our sponsors.

"First place winners from each category will be part of a final judging for the overall competition winner."

In an email sent to the judges and obtained by Imaging Resource, Cincotta's tone differs from that of his public Facebook post.

In it, Sal apologizes to the judges, noting that he's dealing with "a giant I told you so from my team, who told me not to enter." He goes on to tell the judges "I hope this has not spilled over to you - but if it has, please feel free to speak publicly." Per his Facebook post, he still doesn't see any genuine problem, but rather blames his current problems on "optics and the scandalous headlines that are legit making shit up." 

"Optics" or appearances of even a possible impropriety is, of course, just the sort of thing that Ms. Kitchens addressed in her comments above.

As part of our due diligence on this matter, we reached out to Canon, a major sponsor of Shutterfest, to ask them their opinion on the matter. (Full disclosure; we don't know any details of the relationship between Canon and Shutterfest, only that their logo was the largest on the page, other than Shutter Magazine, another Cincotta enterprise.) They responded that they were just learning of the situation, and "at this time we do not have a comment." 

If the photographic community accepts the rules by which WPPI abides, then Cincotta is in violation of those rules, even if he was under no obligation to abide by them for his own competition. However, it should be noted that judges can enter WPPI competitions but must recuse themselves from judging if their images are ever placed in front of them. Is that better or worse than Cincotta's situation? Cincotta may have financial ties to the company he ultimately was awarded by, but he did not take part in the judging and the judges are firm that their choices were made based solely on the best images submitted to the contest. According to the lawyer we consulted, Ms. Kitchens, having a financial stake in the outcome is precisely why it should not be allowed. The fact that Cincotta, through his company, made income (gross or net is irrelevant) on the entries and then proceeded to win is the main point of concern. 

There are a number of similar pay-to-play competitions on the 'web that many people participate in. While WPPI is very clear in its rules, most commercial competitions we checked made no comment about the eligibility of owners, employees or judges to participate.

These are muddy waters, and ones that must be navigated by the community as a whole. Photo competitions are extremely popular and will likely continue to be. How we view them and what standards we hold them to is, apparently, still up for debate. 

What do you think? Do pay-to-play photo contests need to exclude owners, employees, relatives and judges from participating? Would you participate in a paid contest if that weren't the case?

UPDATE 05/01/2017 02:21 PM ET:

Two points:

  • Sal Cincotta reached out to Imaging Resource to state the rules link we provided for WPPI's contest entries was incorrect and was not the rules they follow, and linked here. Before updating, we wanted to hear from a WPPI spokesperson on this matter which could not be done until Monday, May 1. When they got back to us, they had the following to say, which backs up (and shares the quote with) our original link to rules provided in the article above. Here is their statement, emphasis ours:
    The following rules regarding employees, affiliates, family, and agents’ participation in our contests applies to ALL contests sponsored / presented by the Photo+ Group which includes, Photo District News (PDN), Rangefinder magazine, WPPI and PhotoPlus Expo trade shows and conferences, and ShutterLove.com.  Any other contests where the Photo+ Group is a sponsor or co-sponsor with another entity, the SAME rules will apply for employees, et al.

    PDN and WPPI contest rules are the same when it comes to who may enter a contest.

    Employees of Photo District News®, and each of their affiliates, subsidiaries and agents, and their immediate family members (spouse, parent, child, sibling and their respective spouses, regardless of where they live) or persons living in the same households of such individuals, whether or not related, are not eligible to enter or win a prize. Entrants must be at least 18 years of age as of the date of entry. CONTEST IS VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.

  • Sal claims that he had no financial interest in the outcome of the contest, because there were no cash prizes involved, and he passed along the sponsor's in-kind prizes to other winners. We have no way of telling whether the list of prizes shown on the winners list for the contest does in fact contain all prizes received from sponsors, but are happy to take his word for that. This does still leave the issue of people who might have won if he hadn't entered. They would have received more recognition, and a share in the prizes. (Another separate issue there; there's a pretty wide range of value between prize values in different categories, was that established beforehand?) Cincotta's "financial interest" is still a concern, however, as his ownership of the company who ran the competition he entered is still the focal point of the discussion, per the conversation with the lawyer we spoke to, Ms. Kitchens. Regardless of financial interest, though, as the statement from WPPI makes clear, employees let alone owners entering competitions just isn't done. Sal's certainly free to set whatever rules he wants to for his competitions, but he can't at this point continue to claim that they're the same rules WPPI adheres to. (We also reached out to PPA, but so far haven't received a response back from them on the topic.)

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