What could a sustainable photobook award process look like?

There are a growing number of international photobook and dummy awards each year.  While there are many points on which to critique them and their operation, the reality is that they currently play a significant role in the photobook ecosystem. How can these processes contribute to a discussion about how the books are being made, as well as celebrating examples of sustainable publishing?

The submission and review process itself often poses a number of challenges to sustainable practices:

Each award typically requires the photographer/publisher to provide a copy or copies of the physical book. These books are often not returned, whether the submission is successful or unsuccessful. And frequently books are rejected by the organiser from the awards process before jurying begins

Many books are submitted to multiple awards 

Submissions are typically by post, and often use substantial packaging

Books are often transported from one location to another throughout the awards process

As with the making of photobooks, there is no single answer to the question: what does a sustainable photobook awards process look like? By asking questions, and actively sharing the responses, we can develop strategies that productively critique our current practices.

This is an evolving document - Please get in touch if you have any comments or suggestions
Dolly Meieran & Tamsin Green - February 2024

Could we introduce a Sustainability Question?

An opportunity to ask whether sustainability was considered in the making of the photobook, and if so, to describe how. While this would not necessarily be a factor in selecting the overall winner, it could instigate  bookmakers to think sustainably when making books in future, as well as provide a much needed platform for discussion in the wider photobook sphere. 

What kind of questions could be included?

Please provide details of the materials and processes used, including but not limited to paper, binding, printer, printing process, inks, packaging, number of books, size of book

How did you decide on your material, process and distribution choices? (e.g. proximity of printer to distribution point, environmental certifications, minimising waste and harmful materials)

What challenges did you face regarding sustainability?

Could we introduce a Sustainability ‘Honourable Mention’?

An opportunity to showcase and celebrate the sustainability answers gathered as part of the submission process.

Could we rethink how books are delivered?

Could entrants be asked to use fully recyclable and reusable packaging when submitting books?

Could entrants be encouraged to drop off books where possible, rather than to post?

Could a longlist be chosen from PDFs / videos and then physical books be requested to select the shortlist? 

Could we rethink where books end up?

Could books be returned to the author / publisher? 

Could books be donated to a public or university library?

Could photobook awards share book submissions?

Case Study - Photo|Frome Open Book Awards

In the summer of 2023, Photo|Frome festival made an effort to incorporate and trial sustainability initiatives within the framework of a new book award. These initiatives and the responses are shared in the Case Study below, along with notes and observations on areas that require deeper deliberation.  

Image © Alfredo Blasquez

As part of the 2023 Photo|Frome festival there was a free to enter exhibition of photobooks, zines and printed publications. Photo|Frome looked to showcase a range of work – local and international, diverse in subject matter, by students and professionals – that demonstrated the possibilities and potential of the photobook format. 

Entries were selected by the PhotoIFrome curatorial team, and exhibited at Frome Library throughout the festival in June and July 2023. There was a juried cash award for the strongest submission that connected with the festival theme ‘Decolonising Environments’ and an Honourable Mention for diligence and innovation in sustainable photobook production and/or publishing.

Sustainability initiatives trialled as part of the book award process

These initiatives were developed by SPP network in collaboration with Jesse Alexander, Photo|Frome steering committee.

An Optional Sustainability Question: Asked to applicants as part of the submission process. If environmental and ecological sustainability were considered at any stage(s) in the production of your book / zine, please tell us how. Or, tell us about the specific challenges you encountered in your efforts to reduce the environmental and ecological impact of your publication. Would you do anything differently next time?

Sustainability Honourable Mention: An opportunity to showcase and celebrate the sustainability answers gathered as part of the application process. Selected by the members of the jury: Amak Mahmoodian, Christiane Monarchi, Colin Pantall  &  Tamsin Green. 

Packaging: Entrants were asked to use fully recyclable packaging when sending books

Transportation: Submissions were posted directly to Frome Public Library where they were exhibited as part of the photography festival. The review process was undertaken within the exhibition itself and the authors had the option to collect their books from the library once the exhibition ended, while any uncollected books were donated to the library. This eliminated the need for any additional transportation of the books once they were submitted.


92 books were submitted, from five continents. 

The Optional Sustainability Question

  • 65% of the submissions included an answer to the optional sustainability question
  • Of the entrants that completed the sustainability question, the majority focused on their selection of materials (choice of paper, printing), as primary considerations. Many mentioned their use of uncoated, FSC and recycled papers, vegetable-inks, and working locally as well as choosing a sustainable printing partner
  • The key challenge that was faced by entrants centred around the local availability of sustainable choices, especially by applicants from outside of Northern Europe
  • Some of the entrants mentioned their reduction of resource use through optimising book size to paper size, producing small books, small numbers of books, or print on demand
  • A small number of the entrants mentioned distribution, sending books by sea freight and overground instead of airmail, printing in multiple locations to reduce transportation

The Sustainability Honourable Mention

This book award is the first we know of to select an honourable mention for sustainability. The winner was Alfredo Blasquez (Mexico) for his book La playa de los juguetes perdidos. More information about the book & sustainability can be found in the SPP Case Study, Collection II.

Judges comment: Alfredo Blasquez's work is incredibly tactile and demonstrates an exceptional appreciation for the materiality of his photobooks. The work draws the viewer vividly to the challenges of plastic pollution, creating a highly engaging object and narrative with unique materials, features and details. The judges were inspired by Blasquez's determination to use sustainable paper stocks and processes in spite of his suppliers' and manufacturers' objections and reservations, showing his commitment to producing an object with the greatest integrity that could be achieved within his locality.


95% of the submissions were sent using recyclable packaging (5% were harder-core foil laminated bubble wrap envelopes). Nearly all of the packaging has since been either recycled or reused by the festival team (Including the small amount of flexible plastics and polythene, which were recycled at the local supermarket)

Observations and Notes

The Sustainability Question

"In many respects it’s easier to make a dummy with a lot of consideration of sustainable materials, which might advantage an individual artist / their book over a larger publisher. But the ecological impact of a smaller production change by a larger publisher might be significantly greater." Jesse Alexander, Photo|Frome steering committee

This award welcomed single book dummies, zines and artist books as well as more traditional photobooks. The number of books being made is a key factor in the choice of materials and processes. Should there be different criteria / awards for edition sizes above and below 100 copies?

The process needs to be robust enough to gather quantifiable information without allowing applicants to greenwash. It is also important that environmental credentials are not seen as a form of gatekeeping that are only possible for publishers of a certain size or location. How could the sustainability questions be better structured to capture these nuances?


The high response rate of 95% of submissions 'getting the brief' to use recyclable and/or reused packaging indicates that this is an easily implemented step to reduce waste to landfill. Especially when it's coupled with responsible management of packaging by the awards team.

Using Format