WPPI has proposed changes to their Accolades of Excellence program and competition rules, and I’m more than a little disappointed. I don’t usually buck change. I normally embrace it, but this is different for me, and I think it’s important that I share why I’m not on board with what’s coming down the pipeline from WPPI.

First, I have to tell you that I’ve been a real cheerleader for WPPI since I joined the association in 2007. I like the attitude. I like the atmosphere. I like the competition, and frankly, I like the people involved with WPPI. The association has both inspired me and pushed me to be a better photographer – to strive to be the best at what I do, and I have really pushed every photographer that I know to join.

In 2008, shortly after joining, I entered my first WPPI print competition and started my journey in the Accolades program. I walked away with third place overall in the Premiere division that year, and I was immediately caught up in submitting my work to be judged by my peers.

From 2008 to 2013, I’ve been lucky enough to place in WPPI competitions eleven times, including winning Commercial Image of the Year honors a few years ago.  In the span of five years, I’ve earned enough points to receive Accolades of Photographic Mastery and Outstanding Photographic Achievement. In fact, earlier this year I had amassed all of the exhibition points (a total of 51) that I would ever need to reach the highest accolade in the Accolades of Excellence program. As of week ago, I was only four instructional points away from an Accolade of Exceptional Photographic Achievement and 14 instructional points away from the highest honor in the program, the Accolade of Highest Photographic Achievement.

To say I was proud of these achievements and my success in such a short period of time would be an understatement. To say that I had to grow as an artist and a photographer in order to achieve that success would also be a major understatement. I worked very hard and invested a lot of time, energy and money in my craft to get there, and it has been invaluable to me as an artist and photographer.

When the proposed changes to the program were announced this past Friday, all of that – every bit – was rendered practically useless in the new Nielsen/WPPI “Honors” program. In fact, I’ll be lucky if those accomplishments meet the base level of “Associate of WPPI.”

So, how did this happen?

In late 2010, The Nielsen Company purchased Rangefinder Magazine and WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International – the largest association of wedding and portrait photographers in the world), and as an avid member of WPPI, I’ve watched the changes over the last few years.  Some have been very good and others not so much. I’ve watched as changes were made in staff at the top and many smaller image competitions were added at the bottom, but there was nothing major until this Friday, when major changes to the Accolades of Excellence program and print competition rules were announced. The new “Honors of Excellence” program replaces the previous “Accolades of Excellence” program and will be headed up by Jerry and Melissa Ghionis and current WPPI Director, Jason Groupp (all three excellent choices by WPPI and Nielsen).

What’s good about the new Honors of Excellence program?

Well, a few things actually. The exhibition point structure will now be the only basis for achievement, which means that people who either can’t perform well as a speaker or are blocked from opportunities to speak at WPPI’s conferences can actually achieve the honors based on their work and nothing else.

Beyond that, exhibition points will now be weighted based on the competition print score. Entrants who receive higher scores will receive more points for exceptional work than entrants who simply make above average work, and there’s no more “buying” your way up the ladder. Only the top four scores per print competition will be applied to the Honors program.

Categories and rules have been revised as well. WPPI is refocusing its competitions around wedding and portrait work, which makes sense. After all, WPPI stands for Wedding and Portrait Photographers International.

Wedding images will now have to be made at an actual wedding event or ceremony, and that eliminates those who would hire models, dress them as bride and groom and take them to an exotic location for a stylized shoot.

These are all good things that I truly believe will help the program, keep photographers fired up, and level the playing field.

So what’s the problem?

Traditionally, WPPI has held three major competitions each year: 16×20, and two halves of an 8×10 competition (which became the Online Competition in the last few years). Points accrued from scores in any of these three competitions were applied to totals in the Accolades of Excellence program. They were equal in the eyes of the program. Not anymore.

The proposed program doesn’t recognize scores from either half of the Online Competition, unless those scores result in a first, second, or third place finish. If you are lucky enough to garner a first, second, or third place finish in your division, you gain only one point for that finish (with a maximum of 2 points allowed per year). In other words, if you score a 90 in the 16×20 competition and don’t place, you score 2 points toward the HOE – the exact same amount of points that an entrant who scored TWO placed finishes in the Online Competition would receive. Does that sound far-fetched? It’s not. I’ve done it three times since 2009.

And here’s the problem. The proposed Nielsen/WPPI Honors program funnels members to a far more expensive print contest in order to be recognized for achievement and ability. To enter the Online Competition, a member pays $15 per entry and submits his entry online. There is no real overhead for the photographer. It’s $15 plain and simple. To enter the 16×20 Competition, a member pays $40 per entry, and there’s a lot of overhead for the photographer, including printing, mounting, shipping, and return shipping. When I’ve entered 16×20 in the past, I’ve spent close to $100 per entry to get a decent mounted print into competition. For photographers who are already struggling, this proposed change may put competition and recognition out of reach.

In essence, Nielsen/WPPI will make the Online Competition the red-headed stepchild of its competitions. It’s almost not worth entering at this point, because the likelihood of receiving anything more valuable than a critique is next to nil.

Beyond that, the transition from the Accolade to Honors program for folks who have participated heavily in competition in previous years is a nightmare at best, especially if you earned your points by doing well in the Online Competition. Previously earned points will be redistributed as if they were part of the new program, and anything earned in Online Competition doesn’t count. That’s right. If you did well in Online competition, then Nielsen/WPPI is now telling you that your achievements were meaningless.

“No first, second, or third place winners of the first or second half online competitions can backdate points that contribute to their Honors of Excellence designation.”

People like me who accepted the rules of the previous program as published and participated according to those rules are now being penalized for not spending more than $40/entry in the more expensive competition. Their points are no longer valid with Nielsen/WPPI. Their achievements are no longer achievements, and their money and time were absolutely wasted.

It’s how one goes from placing eleven times in competition and a mere 14 instructional points away from top WPPI honors to a total of 8.5 exhibition points and barely an Associate of WPPI. That’s not only disappointing, it’s disheartening.

So where do we go from here?

My honest answer is this. I don’t know. If the Nielsen/WPPI proposed changes are made as is, I will have basically been stripped of everything I’ve earned in competing in the past. If I want to move up the new Honors of Excellence ladder, I will literally have to start over and re-earn what I have already spent time, energy, and money earning. Frankly, I don’t want to start over. I don’t think I should have to start over, and I will really have to think long and hard about my relationship with WPPI and whether I want to start at the bottom again.  Hopefully, Nielsen and WPPI will re-evaluate these changes before implementing them and work toward a better transition for members who played by the rules and earned certain levels of achievement.

UPDATED 10.23.2013 – I was informed today that Nielsen no longer owns WPPI. It is held be another company.