On Being a Photographer: today’s thoughts

Daddy, I want to be a photographer when I grow up

One of my Facebook friends [who wants to become a photographer] was asking me for my angle on something his dad had told him: that there was no money in photography. My first response may have come across as an over-simplification of the answer. Yes, I do manage to support a wife and three kids and pay my Tokyo mortgage with photography alone. But, there is a back-story to that and after a few more comments on my friend’s FB status, I wrote the following for him and I wanted to share it a little wider… as it seemed that might have value for other people than just my friend.

The photo above is of my youngest son, Charlie. He likes the camera. Using it and being in front of it. Maybe I’ll have this chat with him one day soon as well….

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Our conversation has spawned a number of other points and I will be blogging about those in the coming days as well, because they are worthy of separate discussion. For now, though, here is my first utterance on the subject:

Being a professional, freelance photographer is fun. But like anything there are pros and cons and there is no simple answer to people asking ‘how do I go pro?’…. so here’s a little of my story, as I explained it to my mate…….

I support my family with photography but a lot of months it’s tough and it’s always stressful. Sitting here writing articles for my website, sharing pictures… feeling all ‘creative and successful’.. and then the wife comes in my office asking me when the money is coming next.

I am lucky enough to finally be following one of my dreams but in doing so I am often putting something aside for the good of my kids and that ‘something’ unfortunately is as damaging for them as it is beneficial. Yes, I am building something that is outside of the traditional ‘9 to 5 salaryman’ model. Maybe it’s something that the kids can take over from me. It’s hopefully also building some sort of ongoing income for the family, as I this year start to make books and other ‘long life’ products. But I work all the time. Freelance people don’t get paid holidays or sick-leave or pensions. You snooze, you lose. I spend too much time working some weeks that my kids dont see enough of me… 

Photography can easily be your release from other work… and all the while it is NOT your full-time occupation, you have a freedom to pursue it without the restrictions, pressures and creative shackles that invariably come from doing it for other people in return for their money. I have to shoot stuff that doesn’t really make me as excited as if it were just me and my camera, shooting pics just for me. That’s OK. I live with it. But like many of the other facets of being a freelance creative person, I deal with that because those crappier moments are offset by wonderful moments where everything comes together: like standing in Toyota’s studio alongside the director of US ‘Top Gear’, shooting concept cars that none of you ‘mere mortals’ will see for two more years… and, another rarity, getting paid WELL for it. Well enough to pay the mortgage for three months. I had enough money in my hand to walk out a buy a brand-new D800E camera but by the following day the money had gone…. to pay the arrears on the mortgage. That’s good. No problems with that. But because of the pressures, I have to get max value for as long as possible from my gear. That’s all good too.. makes me not lust after the latest thing all the time.

Photography has always been expensive and you may never see a return on that investment: I studied for three years, full-time, to get qualifications in photography. Of the 62 people who studied alongside me, over the two courses I did, myself and one other made it to be full-time professionals. That’s a 96.7% washout rate. Those 3yrs of college bankrupted me. You think gear is expensive now, it was worse then. You can shoot for free now, once you have that camera. I was putting around £100 a week into my photography – film, paper, chemicals – for three years. That’s about $15K back in the late 80s and early 90s. Probably equivalent to £40K now. I’m just starting to get the investment back, just.

So… there is no QUICK money in photography. There is very little or no EASY money in photography but that goes for the rest of life too, for the most part. Get happy, get stable, get positive and successful in a career which will allow you to shoot as much as possible. Keep the dream of photography alive by shooting and learning and building as a photographer. Set goals for your work and reach them. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to shoot and get your work seen in the right places. Start shooting some projects that have a commercial element – even if it’s just a fictitious job that you create them for as a project. Find an edge for your work. Find yourself through your shooting and that’ll help feed your drive to stick at whatever else you are doing alongside the photography; enough so that you are ready to see the opportunity to shoot for a living and seize it. 

Photography is who I am. Not what I do. Therefore it needn’t really matter WHAT I DO…. I am still a photographer inside. It’s harder now, in some ways. But it’s easier in many others.

There have always been shit photographers who get by with little talent. Now it’s just easier to find them. Yes, there is lots of photography out there. Lots of ‘photographers’. Some good, some shit. Some who seem to get all the breaks even though they are just churning out crap. But it has always been the same. It’s just that now we hear about and see them and their crap more often and more readily.

Before the web you had to go to a lot of exhibitions, read a lot of books, look at a lot of magazines, to get the idea that some people just had all the luck to have ‘made it’ on the strength of the shite they were shooting.

Now you can sit on the no.49 bus, with an iphone, and be drowned in crap photos…

… or you can sit on that same bus and be inspired right in the palm of your hand. [cue the cheap masturbation jokes here]

It has always been tough to get noticed by the right people: In the past, to get seen, you needed a show, a book, a publishing deal. You needed to get in front of editors and convince them your work was good enough. That set up some sort of filtration process. So in some ways the good stuff was what got seen. But a lot of the time it was about who not what you knew. That’s how the crap got out there. And let me tell you that getting a few bum comments on Flickr about a picture is a lot easier to brush off than getting ‘Dear Alf’ letters from 25 editors, publishers and galleries….

Now? Well, one way of seeing it is that as a photographer today – with digital cameras, ‘lights-on processing’, smart-phones, the web – you’ve never had it so good. You can sit on the toilet having a shit and publish your photos to a global audience. Back in 1988, I would have given my right arm to have had such a convenient worldwide mechanism for publishing my work.

Everything has its pros and cons. The web has saturated us with images but it provides a mechanism to get seen, allows us to network and meet people and share things in a way that I could only have dreamed about when I left college and was looking for my first assistant’s job.

I understand what my mate’s dad meant. Photography is not an easy road. No creative pursuit is. Every type of professional creative person – musician, photographer, artist, writer – is under financial pressure to actually be able to pay the bills with their craft. As a parent you want to try and be realistic about things with your kids whilst not seeming to be crushing their dreams. That’s a tough balance.

My parents were great and I miss them, as they both died a few years back – within six months of each other. They supported me a lot as a youngster. They got to see my work on walls and in a few magazines and newspapers but they were gone by the time my photography really kicked-off and got me as widely published/seen as I am now. That’s a shame but that’s life.

So now my kids get to go to school and brag to their mates that ‘dad just shot for Lexus… and he let me see the shots of a car you won’t see on the streets til 2015… na-na-ni-na-na’ 

That’s as good as my mum and dad being here to see it….

 

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Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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