Last week I wrote a piece called "How to Nail a Portfolio Review" with tips on how to best present yourself and your work in a fine art photography portfolio review. Among a lot of great feedback, one person commented that porfolio reviews were "pay to play" - in other words, they are a way for photographers to pay money in exchange for opportunities. I understand how a person could have that perception, but I disagree. Photography professionals who are invited to review portfolios are not paid (in all but one case that I am aware of - Atlanta Celebrates Photography gives a small stipend for participation, which is so lovely). Most portfolio review programs cover the travel and hotel for the reviewer. So reviewers come because they want to help photographers, and they want to find work they can use for their projects. (It's also fun to socialize with people who love what you love.)
Participants do pay to be reviewed. An average cost per 20-minute review comes out to be about $55. So yes, the photographer pays. But unlike "pay to play" situations, paying to participate in a portfolio review does not guarantee any opportunities for a photographer. You are paying for the opportunity to show your work to people you may not have access to otherwise (for geographic reasons primarily). You are paying for the chance to sit face to face with someone and explain your work to them, ask questions, and receive feedback, none of which happen when you send a blind submission.
However, portfolio reviews are the best or most economically efficient way for all photographers to move through the fine art world. There are all types of photography professionals at a portfolio review, and you are not guaranteed to see all of your top choices. Reviews are also expensive, especially after factoring in travel, food, and lodging. If your goals are very specific and you have created a targeted list of people you want to connect with, you may be better off using the same amount of funds (or less) to take a road trip and set up meetings with the exact people you want to see your work.
So while you do pay to get your work in front of people who are often looking for portfolios to exhibit and publish, your photography needs to be good and fit their needs. The money only guarantees the meetings. Your work has to do the rest.