Top Tips From Small Voice Podcast Guests

I was recently asked by Dr. Paul Lowe (episodes 71 & 73 of the podcast) to do a teaching session with his graduating MA Photojournalism & Documentary Photography students based on the most crucial lessons and advice I’ve gleaned from talking to 100+ top notch photographers on the podcast. This immediately struck me as an interesting exercise and potentially of huge value to them. But how to do it? I do often pose a question along the lines of “what’s the one piece of advice you would pass on?”, but who the hell did I ask? There was no way I could listen back over every interview, so the only logical course of action was to email everybody and ask them all that question once and for all. So that’s what I did and here is the advice that came back from the lovely people who took the time and trouble to respond, some in writing and some with a voice memo. I hope you find it as useful and/or inspiring as I did. Incidentally, it was touching and instructive to me to note a lot of consensus around two things: 1. Do work that matters to you. And 2. Be kind. So there are your takeaways.

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Antonio Olmos (Ep. 4)

“1. Be Good at Portraits. It is the one aspect of editorial photography that is still commissioned widely. The days when photographers were sent all over the world to cover news are gone. But Portraits are still being commissioned on a regular basis. No matter what kind of photography you want to practice ,being good at portraits will make it easier to make a living.

2. Manage and protect your archive. One thing I have learned is that you don’t know which of your photographs will be valuable in the future. About a quarter of my income is from reselling photographs from my archive. And every year this source of income is growing. So that means captioning and key wording your photographs after every shoot. Backing things up regularly without fail. Making sure your photographs are on some picture library and that your own archive is google searchable so that people can find those photographs you have. Portraits of not so famous people can become extremely valuable in the future. I have a friend who did a wonderful portrait of a Harvard student who was elected as Law School President. As with all jobs he took the commission seriously and 2 decades later the student was elected President of the United States, Barack Obama. He has made over $50,000 dollars just from licensing this one photo. I have another friend who started photographing the local bands in his small town in Washington state as a project. One of those bands Nirvana became super famous and when Kurt Cobain died, his photographs made him almost half a million dollars, because he was almost the only one who had photos of Nirvana and Cobain when they started. So my message is your archive is your pension. Take care of it and it will take care of you.”

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Matt Stuart (Ep. 17)

“Don’t be late. With anything. Replying to emails, sending invoices, meetings, shoots, delivery of photographs, taking the picture. Anything. If you leave a reply over two hours, some clients will try someone else. Things move too quickly for tardiness.”

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Adam Hinton (Ep.9)

“I would say that one of the key concerns for photojournalists these days is the potential to end up being a tool in the machinery of fake news narratives. The mainstream media has always played an important role in laying down the idealogical groundwork to ensure general compliance with western goals especially in foreign policy. In our current climate this has been taken to new levels and imagery plays a vital role in the manipulation of events to fit these state narratives.”

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Harry Borden (Ep. 15 & 16)

“Even though it wasn’t something that was available when I first started out, I certainly wish I’d got involved in social media a few years earlier. Photographers of my age can sometimes be a little disparaging about the whole concept, but Instagram, for me, turned out to be a brilliant way of getting my work out there and sharing it with the world at large. I’m so glad that I finally saw the light, but I just wish I’d done it a lot sooner!

Another thing I wish I had done sooner was to switch formats. When I started out I was in awe of the likes of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus and all of them used medium format and studio cameras so that was the way I aspired to work. I bought myself a Rolleiflex TTL rangefinder and worked with cameras such as a Linhof Technika and the quality I achieved was fantastic but it slowed me down. It wasn’t until I joined the Independent Photographers Group (IPG) and mixed with the likes of Zed Nelson that I was introduced to the Leica and fully realised just how much freedom it gave you. I look back and think about a session I had with Quentin Tarantino, where I spent several hours with him and shot just a couple of rolls of film. I wonder now what I could have achieved on 35mm: perhaps not quite so beautifully shot but possibly more interesting.

I do have other things that I would love to have told myself about: when I first came to London I was quite skint and a little parsimonious, so to save perhaps £30-40 I would go on shoots without an assistant and undertake everything myself. Inevitably this meant that I would be fiddling with my camera when I could have been building a relationship with my sitter, and the fact is that famous people do make assumptions about you and I might have been given more time with them had I had an entourage. The ridiculous thing is that I could have charged the client for an assistant as a legitimate expense but for some reason didn’t do it.

The final point I would have made to my younger self would be to know your worth. It was difficult because I was so happy to be making a living out of what I loved doing that I didn’t realise the value of my work. Eventually some of those I worked alongside at IPG pointed out to me that I owned the copyright to my pictures and, by syndicating them through Katz Pictures, I could earn money.

I also recall that I was asked by Warner Brothers to set a fee for a picture of Seal that had never been published that they wanted to use. He’s one of the best-selling artistes of all time and Warner Brothers are enormous but I think in the end I settled for just £75. This was back in the 80s and, at the time, I just couldn’t believe that anyone would pay decent money for my pictures, but I soon wised up after that!”

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Chloe Dewe Mathews (Ep. 20)

“My tip would be JUST DO IT! Don't spend weeks and months chatting about what work you plan to do, considering if it's a good enough idea, because it is in making that the work evolves. It will never be as you first envisaged it anyway - and that's a good thing!”

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Mark Neville (Ep. 44)

“One great image is worth more than five thousand good ones. Take your time. Secondly: Think about the audience first. Who is the work for? Then make your project. Thirdly: Don’t listen to advice from old farts like me.”

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Edward Thompson (Ep. 27)

“Most students are working at about 60% - they could get up earlier, shoot more, read more, do more, hustle more. I fell into the trap post-grad of laying in now and again till a guy I knew found out he had a lump in his leg. He died soon after, leaving a wife and newborn daughter. Every morning after that I was up early whether I had an assignment or not because he wasn't here anymore. You are already on the greatest adventure of your life, because it’s YOUR life. So live it. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson said, all you have to do is live and life will give you pictures.”

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Sophie Ebrard (Ep. 24)

“To me, the key to making great work is not to make work just because you think people will like it or because you think it will be successful. Make work that is true to your own self, find your own voice, make work that speaks to you first. And then, if you feel something when you press the shutter, there is a good chance that people will feel it too when looking at the image.”

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Daniel Castro Garcia (Ep. 39)

“Personally I think the most vital tip is that you need to stay true to yourself and to your vision. Don’t copy others and stay focussed on the projects that you want to make and try to find a balance between head and heart, potentially favouring the heart. People respond to warmth and empathy.

Also, I think it’s really important to be hard on yourself, particularly in the documentary realm. Often the work will be about people/ individuals other than yourself so the motivation should be to do them and their stories justice. Good morals and ethical standards must always be the aim so you have to push and push to make the work water tight.

All in all, KEEP IT REAL. It’s a marathon not a sprint!”

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Daniel Regan (Ep. 30)

“It really makes me think of the Anthony Burrill screen print I have in my house with the slogan “WORK HARD & BE NICE TO PEOPLE”. A lot of my work has come from being nice, supporting others instead of competing against them. At university I thought of other students as my peers, not competitors. I prefer to share resources rather than hoard them because it means we all get more opportunities. Being laser focused on arts & health means I don’t mind working hard, because it’s something I love.”

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Chris Floyd (Ep. 34)

“1. There is always one more thing you can do to improve your chances of a positive outcome. So find a moment to stop, when you’re in the situation, and ask yourself ‘what can I do here to make this better?’

2. Treat every experience and every shoot you do as an opportunity to make mistakes from which to learn something. Take the long view. When you end up with results that you are not happy with, think of it as another step on the road to the palace of wisdom. Only by making mistakes do we, in the long run, acquire wisdom and experience. Also, people who’ve never made mistakes are boring.

3. Photography is not necessarily an end in itself. In fact, most of the time it’s a tool by which to understand and learn from the people with which we use it to engage. Think of photography as your ever present teacher. Treat it with respect and it will return unto you infinitely.

4. F4 is a beautiful aperture.

5. According to Albert Einstein, the speed of light is the only constant in the entire universe. Your role as a photographer is to disrupt that.

6. When you have the opportunity to charge batteries, do it.

7. Think of photography as music. It has melody, harmony and rhythm. The way you light and compose your picture is the chord structure and your interaction with your subject is the melody.

8. Never leave the arm of a C-Stand at head height. I once saw someone lose an eye because of that. Look around your immediate working environment and ask yourself if you have made it as safe as possible.”

Peter Zelewski (Ep. 37)

“Whenever I am asked to give one piece of photography advice to aspiring photographers I always say make sure that you try your best to always make photographs that mean something to you, because in doing so, you will find they will almost always mean something to others. This may seem like obvious and clichéd advice but I feel that as soon as a photographer starts making unique, meaningful and personal work that reflects something they are genuinely interested in that is when their journey as a successful photographer truly begins.”

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Kate Peters (Ep. 21)

“Don’t be in a rush to be an overnight success. There seems to be so much pressure for people to 'make it’ really quickly and in a way it may seem like everyone else is. Social media has warped our sense of what’s really going on for people and that has a tendency to make us feel anxious and rush to get things out there. Be in it for the long haul, you don’t want to burn out quickly and you also don’t want to release work before it’s ready to be seen.”

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Maja Daniels (Ep. 13)

“My best advice would perhaps be for everyone to really get their head around the history of photography in relation to depicting the other (through post-colonial theory). Sounds a little boring but so important to understand how photography has been (and still is) actively used as an oppressive tool. And then, to try to think beyond this. Perhaps think about what a photograph does rather than what it represents. Also, I think photography is about desire. Let that desire lead you...”

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Briony Campbell (Ep. 46)

“Chase every single opportunity as long as it does at least one of the following:

1. Enhances your portfolio
2. Builds your skills
3. Lines your pockets
4. Contributes to a valuable cause
5. Is fun!

And none of the following:

1. Compromises your ethics
2. Exploits you financially (that doesn't mean don't do work for free)
3. Exploits you personally.”

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Ian Derry (Ep. 51)

“It goes without saying that you need to thoroughly understand what you're doing but in this day and age it can be tough out there. Have a goal and then plan how you're going to get there. There will be setbacks and times when you will want to give up. When you are at that point remember this: If the plan doesn't work, change the plan never the goal.”

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Lydia Goldblatt (Ep. 19)

“My top tip would be to make sure that you continue to develop a group of like-minded people around you, ideally a handful of people who you feel understand your work and can engage with it both positively and critically. Every time you embark on a project, a portfolio update, even a commission, it’s so useful to have a support network of people like this around you, with whom you can, when needed, brainstorm, discuss work and show work. It’s also great when you’re going through those periodic and inevitable uncertain patches when you’re not sure where you’re headed.”

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Max Pinckers (Ep. 31)

“What I essentially try to teach my students is to always remain critical towards the work you make. Be self-reflexive in your approach, question everything, and embrace doubt and uncertainty as part of your process. Do plenty of research, try to be informed, but aim for complete freedom in your artistic expression.”

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Jenny Lewis (Ep. 64)

“If you photograph something you really believe in, you’re going to take much stronger pictures, so always try and have that going on. Even if it’s in the background to the work you get paid for. That way you don't lose sight of what it is you’re trying to do with image making. Try and remember to enjoy it too.”

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Jocelyn Bain Hogg (Ep. 36)

“1. Get a good accountant!!!

2. It’s obvious but essential to be comfortable when shooting and my choice is to invest in RM Williams boots. Unisex, they double as ‘posh’ so can be worn as smart footwear when doing those delightful corporate jobs, but they work with any other clothing too, are great in harsh environments and city streets too, are incredibly comfortable, and last forever when looked after so you only need a replacement every 15-20 years.”

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Sian Davey (Ep. 66)

“Well, boringly perhaps, is to work very hard because if you don't practice, your work doesn't develop and neither will your career. Voila.”

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Ed Kashi (Ep.83)

“Your greatest work will come from within you. You must identify what you care about and pursue personal projects on what you care about. Regardless of whether you have to invest your own time and money at the beginning, this is about investing in yourself.”

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Giles Duley (Ep. 63)

“Two things really: 1. Don’t make photographs because you think it’s what others want to see - shoot what you love, what you are passionate about, what you know. 2. Listen. It may be a strange thing to say to a photographer. But to really capture somebody's story, you must listen to it first. Too many photographers turn up and meet the person looking through the viewfinder, they already think they know what the image will be. For me thats wrong - i have to listen first, understand the story - then maybe I’ll find a way to tell it.”

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Alixandra Fazzina (Ep. 89)

“My advice to my students studying documentary photography is always to be concerned with the content. Lots of people take beautiful pictures and we see thousands each day. When we see photographs on a wall or in print, what we really remember is the story.”

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Muir Vidler (Ep. 59)

“Keep looking at lots of photography for inspiration, thinking what it is that you like in it and how do people do it. And ask yourself, not how can you copy it, but how can you appreciation of their talent and originality help in your search for your own.”

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Chris Dorley-Brown (Ep. 97)

“Always turn in to the direction of the skid, like the old driving instructor advice. Which is to say, sometimes the way out of danger is to question your immediate instinct and don’t go for the obvious strategy. Or, follow your guts not your head. Also: Be silly. Be kind. Be weird.”

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Ron Haviv (Ep. 86)

“It’s a pretty simple yet very complicated tip. One must think outside the box in their approach to any story. We have all been told everything has already been done and there is nothing new. But I don’t agree. We see today stories about human rights or with conflict themes that have been documented for generations being done in an ‘outside of the box way’. The thought behind the visual approach and execution of an established theme in a new way is the way to successful impact with the audience.”

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Robin Maddock (Ep. 56)

“Looking back on my time I would say the most important thing I’ve learnt is that you should listen to all your tutors but decide carefully who’s advice to apply! I remember doing a masters at Westminster and showing new project that involved pasting stuff up on the street. I loved doing it. It felt vital and direct; fresh. This was 1998. One of the tutors said ‘it’s not good ,this kind of thing’ and bombarded me with examples of work he thought was good. The end result was I lost confidence in this way of working, which I shouldn’t have! I mean I could have been famous like Banksy or JR by now! The upshot is some tutors are just never going to get what you are trying to bring forth, and others will change your life in just one lecture! So Think carefully before you lose believe in your early ideas. Trust in those teachers who can help you bring out, not hinder, the ways that feel right to you. You will need their wisdom and experience to grow ideas into something of quality and maturity. But don’t let bad advice hold you back either. I regret not being experienced enough at the time to shake off what I can now see as a lack of vision on the tutors part.”

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Donald Weber (Ep. 90)

“Think like an amateur, and make sorties into the terrain of the professional. Amateur means just that - doing something that you love. This needs to be front and centre over anything else. Discard the recognition the industry so badly needs you to conform to. Instead, carve out your own space in your own image. Let’s not confuse “amateur” with someone who is a dilettante, unprofessional. No, an amateur is someone who finds joy — love — in what they do. Perhaps the best way to condition yourself as an amateur is to look at its etymology. Amator is the Latin for lover. Don’t you want to do something that you love, that fulfills you, that provides meaning? To me, the world of possibility is open. I can drift across disciplines and collaborate with others; I can engage with institutions and challenge their power; the freedom to work outside the constricted norms provides sudden portals for a future I could never imagine. Do what you love. Others will want to participate, opportunities emerge.”

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Stuart Freedman (Ep. 7)

“I think that there are several bits of advice. I think that people will only survive in this business with persistence bordering on bloody mindedness. I think that it’s important, especially for MA graduates, to be able to produce work that appeals to a wide audience and not just theoreticians. Hopefully that will be work that’s personally important because otherwise you’re wasting your time. Lastly, I’d suggest an income stream in an area of scarcity - technical lighting, taking pictures of dogs or being an expert on somewhere remote and interesting - and probably basing yourself there.”

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Jillian Edelstein (Ep. 87)

“These are a few ‘tips’ that I learnt early on and they have always been present to remind me, to drive me on:

1. You’re only as good as your last good image - keep working, get ‘out there’, the more you work, the better your images get ( it’s the practice ‘ism) like any good creative - musicians, writers, artists, actors etc keep practising!

2. The first newspaper picture editor I worked for told me not to come back with excuses. He was a bit like a military commander in how he ‘trained’ me but that advice even though it was galling, banal was true.

3. Another photo editor, after many years of being a successful (to boot) freelancer told me when I struggled with a particular portrait shoot : “ Jeez Jillian talk about breaking the boundaries of portraiture “ ... his sarcasm- and the fact that it was painfully true - I had failed even in my own book - made me think about how to think more creatively and how to do it differently with every shoot long after I completed the actual job.

Also … 4. For your own projects you need ‘fire in the belly’- passion, long standing, endlessly driving passion to see it through . Nothing I have created - that has been worthwhile - has taken less than five years!”

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Vanessa Winship (Ep. 3)

“1. Know who has gone before you. Be sure to understand you're not the first and that someone else has made the way for you easier. They may have said it a bit differently, but they will have said it never the less.

2. Learn quickly who you are right now....not easy and not sure I do so kinda telling you to do something almost impossible I guess!

3. Know and understand your limitations including understanding fear is a survival instinct. Never the less feel the fear and question what it's about.

4. Understand that photography and reality are two different things, you're making a representation.

5. Understand that there's a before and an after despite the fact your frame suggests otherwise.

6. Understand photography is intrinsically connected to death, it's always the past the second you press the button and yet paradoxically it's always about now.

7. Consider what you mean by ethics. If you go and work away from home understand cultural codes are different according to where you are, follow the best you can the codes of where you are, but understand they will look different once you're home sometimes.

8. Question your liberal sensibilities. Don't assume that all Trump voters are racists, they are not necessarily that at all they're just fed up of not being listened to.

9. The camera never lies, you do.

10. Remember photography is limited and find a way to extend its limitations.

11. Be willing to change your mind

12. Remember you're an animal that usually stands of two legs, crouch down and kneel sometimes lie on the floor and feel how that is looking up from ground level.

13. WALK quite a bit, but it won't make you live longer despite what they say.

14. Be kind.

15. Laugh at least once a day so your face doesn't crack.

16. Learn to dance since photographers rarely do

17. Enjoy the word lolly since you'll never have any but that's not the point of what you do anyway.

18. Go slow. stand still once in a while.

19. Send postcards to the oldest and the youngest person you know...they will love you for it.

20. A wonderful man in a shop where I live who I like to go talk to now and again said ‘you know, it's easy really, just be kind to people and it will all fall into place’.”

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Christopher Anderson (Ep. 70)

“My advice is simple: Be Yourself.”

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Me! (Ep. 100) - with credit to Derek Sivers

“If information or other people’s advice was the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

'F*ck Trump'

Just some of the many banners on show at the anti-Trump protest in London today. Full of rage and disgust and bewilderment and sometimes wit. And good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon launguage. WARNING: Those sensitive to 4-letter words, look away now!

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Confessions Of A Cricket Dad

Despite the fact that I am pretty much 100% Englishman and had a provincial lower middle-class upbringing, I reached my personal half century without ever being the least bit troubled by an interest in the game of cricket. I remember once loitering aimlessly around the periphery of a school match as a teenager and being spontaneously roped into padding up and taking part by a desperate teacher short of players. My heartfelt plea that I barely knew how to hold the bat fell on deaf ears and I dutifully walked to the crease where I was clean bowled with the first delivery. Thus my playing career began and ended. I became one of those woefully uninformed bigots who thought that watching a test match must surely be some kind of masochistic endurance exercise.

This all changed unexpectedly in one of those random and unpredictable ways a couple of years ago when my son Elliott, then six, discovered cricket entirely off his own bat (pun very much intended) and promptly fell in love with it. As parents will, I gently encouraged and nurtured his nascent passion which was fuelled by endless hours on YouTube watching legendary Ashes moments, bowling tutorials and compilations of “Shane Warne’s greatest leg-spin deliveries OF ALL TIME”. It was all a mystery to me, but Elliott’s enthusiasm was infectious. Shortly thereafter I discovered to my delight and surprise that right on our London doorstep was an incredibly vibrant, friendly, first-class cricket club called Stoke Newington C.C. For Elliott it was a match made in heaven.

Since then I have become a full-time cricket dad and in the process have developed an appreciation of and genuine love for a sport that I spent the preceding fifty years barely noticing. I have learnt that beyond its notoriously impenetrable rules and infamously arcane terminology lies a wonderful game requiring a unique breadth of disparate abilities, incredible specialist skills and intense mental focus; a game full of subtlety and exquisite nuances, often with the mathematical and tactical complexity of chess, punctuated by moments of individual genius and explosive athleticism. There is no more fascinating team sport on earth. 

Being a parent inevitably involves passing on a few of your passions to your offspring, whether intentionally or not. One of life’s small joys is that occassionally it works the other way around.

Unsustainable

Occasionally the universe, or is it the Muse?, will throw you a few crumbs of comfort right when you need them most. 

I have reached a crunch point in my photography ‘career’ (a word that has always been more verb than noun to me) which has frankly been a long time coming. And despite being aware of the reality, I’ve probably had my head in the sand. Now, with bills to pay and a kid to feed, denial is no longer an option. The truth is I doubt I will ever earn a full living from photography again, despite having managed to do just that for the past twenty years or so. So the time has come to explore additional income streams. Urgently. But what? What the hell am I ‘qualified’ to do in the eyes of the wider world? Not much, frankly! I have skills, talents, aptitudes and abilities, yes. I'm a good writer and a solid photographer, I have a degree in video and radio, I can produce a podcast single-handed, I can design, code and copy-edit a website, I have maturity, intelligence, common sense, a breadth of life experience. But can any of that be monetised these days? Does it have any tangible value? Right now I seriously doubt it, though I’m open to being proved wrong. In the meantime I must explore any and all ideas that come to me, regardless of how nutty or left-field, or badly paid, they may seem. 

So it was that I found myself putting the word out to the parents of my kid’s classmates that I’m available for childcare at £12 an hour (I think that job, like nursing or teaching, should be valued more highly than that, but that’s another matter). And - full disclosure - sending that email was brutally hard. I felt physically sick. I felt totally embarrassed. And most of all I felt ashamed to have put myself in a position where it was necessary, because much of it is undeniably my fault. In the past I have been complacent and to some extent lazy. I have sabotaged my own progress in a million ways. And I have taken much for granted. I have a particular memory from the fairly recent past. I was standing on Ipanaema beach in Rio De Janeiro, in my element, shooting a small gaggle of beautiful, bikini-clad Brazilian girls. Day rate: £3K. I'm not trying to show off - most photographers have had at least some experience of ridiculously well paid commercial work - but merely trying to illustrate the extent of the fall to earth that I am now having to deal with. And though I really did appreciate how lucky I was at that moment - how could you not?! - I didn't always, and I really should have.

Ipanaema Beach, Rio De Janeiro. The client was Nokia. (Note to younger people: They used to be a very big deal in the mobile phone handset game.)

Ipanaema Beach, Rio De Janeiro. The client was Nokia. (Note to younger people: They used to be a very big deal in the mobile phone handset game.)

 But what I realised an hour or so after my moment of humility with the childcare email is that some of it is not 'my fault' and, more importantly, I'm definately not alone. The revelation came when I read a Facebook post that changed the way I felt about myself. Chris Floyd, one of the best editorial portrait specialists on the planet, whose chat with me you can hear on episode 34 of A Small Voice podcast, mentioned quite matter of factly that his first commission from a prominent Sunday broadsheet magazine twenty years ago earned him £1800 plus expenses (most of that was a page rate and it was an eight page spread!). His most recent job for them paid £600 including expenses but cost him £1150 to do. So the commission delivered a £550 loss! Chris ended his post thus: "Conclusion, subsidisation of mainstream publishing by individual contributors with experience, talent and skill is unsustainable for all parties."

What interested me most though was the outpouring of empathy, and similar testimony on how messed up the editorial market is for both freelance photographers and writers alike. And it was the calibre of some of those commentators that really blew me away. Writers Kathryn Flett and Kate Spicer chimed in in support. These women are experienced, top drawer columnists and feature writers, with long and impressive track records as contributors to some of the UK’s most prestigious publications. So if they’re suffering, if they’re wondering what’s next, if they’re having to re-train or consider other options, I'd say I’m in damned good company. And, hard though times are, it’s company I’m proud to be in.

 

Coming next week on A Small Voice podcast: A special edition reporting from the recent Offspring Photo Meet, the ‘portfolio review on steroids’ that takes place annually here in London.

Anti School Cuts Demo

Super proud of the Hackney kids (and their fab parents) who turned out at Clissold Park for the demo against school funding cuts. Special shout out to the Betty Layward massive. Innit. Info here.

Left A Bit Blog Interview

I did a Q&A about the podcast with Tom Carpenter on his fab Left A Bit blog. You can check it out here or read it below.

You would be forgiven for being slightly sceptical about the prospect of listening to a series of podcasts, featuring an array of photographers, discussing all things visual. Oh how wrong could you be...

We recently interviewed Ben Smith, the creator of the increasingly popular podcast series 'A Small Voice'. If you have an interest in photography and some of the industries finest photographers, then this is the podcast for you.

 

1. I’ve read that you started 'A Small Voice' as a way of reigniting your passion for photography and also as a way to re-engage with the photographic world again. Do you feel that the podcast has helped you do this? 

Yes it really has, because having an opportunity to meet and chat with such an amazing selection of talented photographers has been both inspiring and galvanising. It’s had an impact in a mysterious sub-conscious way, by osmosis almost. The long-term project I’d been procrastinating over, and beating myself up about and ruminating on for several years is now almost finished, because quite soon after starting the podcast I decided to stop ruminating and get back to shooting! That’s really all one can do, isn’t it? Of course, I may have come to that decision regardless, we’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure the podcast was instrumental in that process. 

2. I started Left A Bit because I wanted a platform to share photography that inspired me, the best way I felt I could do that was through a blog. What were your reasons for selecting podcasts as the platform for 'A Small Voice'? And what do you think a podcast contributes to the photographic world? 

It’s funny because, as someone who was a writer before I became a photographer, I had it in mind for many years that I should have a blog. It never happened, it seemed like the world and her mum had a blog. I couldn’t find the motivation to do it and anyway didn’t think I had anything to say. As soon as I became a regular podcast listener for the first time in 2015, I kind of fell in love with the medium. So I inevitably started searching for the photography podcasts that I wanted to listen to myself. There were one or two out there, but nothing that quite did it for me. So the next thought was, ‘fuck it, maybe I should do it myself then?’ 

As a fan of podcasts, I had the evangelical zeal of the newly converted and that provided the necessary enthusiasm to get over the initial hurdle - all the questioning and self-doubt and ‘what ifs...’ that tend to come with a new idea - and just go for it. 

I am a journalist by instinct, though not by training. I have a love of stories and a curiosity about people. I also have a degree in video and radio production, which for 25 years had proved to be about as much practical use as a chocolate teapot. Suddenly I realised I could combine my natural instincts, aptitudes and inclinations with some rusty, neglected skills and do something constructive with them. 

In terms of what a podcast can contribute, I suppose there are two defining characteristics: firstly, it is an incredibly intimate medium, the best expression of which, to me at least, is found in two people talking to each other. Secondly, podcasting seems to have naturally evolved into a long-form medium, which offers a unique opportunity to really get into detail and go deep. In a world of Snapchat and soundbites and waning attention spans that is a special thing. As all photographers know, some things need time. So when you combine those two characteristics, you end up with the potential for magic to happen. Finally, there’s kind of a joke at the heart of it, because you’re using an audio medium to discuss a visual practice. It’s like featuring a juggler on a radio show, it shouldn’t work, but it does. 

3. Aside from people who are passionate about photography, who do you feel your audience is for the podcasts? 

I hope it’s of relevance to anyone who is interested in the creative process or has creative impulses that they want to pursue. I firmly believe all human beings are born creative. The idea that there are creative people and non-creative people is baloney. It’s just that creativity can be expressed in different ways - running a business, for instance, strikes me as a very creative endeavour, unfortunately nobody bothers to point this fact out! 

So many people’s creativity is slowly but surely eroded by the education system, and the messages they get from well meaning, but misguided parents and teachers, and ultimately the story they tell themselves about who and what they are. Those of us who manage to dodge or ignore those messages are the ones who make it to the other side, and for our sins, get to try and express our creativity.  

I try to focus on the universal themes when possible. How do different people negotiate not only the challenges of pursuing their creativity, but the challenges we all face as human beings: dealing with setbacks and self doubt, juggling all the different commitments, etc.?

At the heart of it is usually the question ‘who is this person’, ‘what makes them tick’, ‘how did they achieve what they’ve achieved’ and ‘what lessons can me and the listener learn from their experience that can be applied to our own lives or creative practices’? For me, more or less everything including the podcast, is basically an attempt at self-help! 

4. When I listen to the podcasts I feel that I am constantly learning new things, and am getting a privileged insight into the working life of a photographer. For me these podcasts are a brilliant educational resource. Do you see the podcasts as being an educational resource? Is that something you envisaged for them when you started out? 

I do now! Because the feedback that I started getting from various guests and listeners was often that message: “Thank you. This is an amazing educational resource you’re creating here.” Now I realise that it has that element to it, which is very gratifying. But no, I’m not sure it was something I realised at the beginning. 

5. Do you have a list of photographers that you want to interview, or do you take on recommendations from other people? 

Both, listeners and sometimes photographer friends do suggest people, which has led to me interviewing some of them. But I need to get better at this too because there are so many good photographers that I’m not aware of, but should be and my lists are never quite long enough. There are certain obvious people I have on them, and some people remain elusive for whatever reason. I have a list entitled ‘Big Game’, with some very famous names on it, and I hope to get some of them on sooner or later. But equally, it’s really not about famous names, it’s more about finding people with an interesting story or approach or whatever.

6. After 46 podcasts to date, from all the knowledge you have acquired from them, in your mind what is the best way of becoming successful in photography? 

That’s a big question, and one which I am personally not well qualified to answer, but I’ll try. The problem is that, firstly, photography is a very broad church. Secondly, success can be defined in many different ways. For example, there are people who earn an extremely good living and have a very nice quality of life, shooting nothing but weddings. By any standards, they have the right to consider themselves successful, but many photographers would view that outcome as reason enough to take a swan dive off the nearest tall building! So it’s horses for courses. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this question in recent years and the answer is the same, whether for photography, playing the violin, flower arranging or cage fighting. Do the work, as well as you possibly can, consistently with commitment, integrity and patience and with a sense of optimistic determination. Persist, persevere, and finish what you’ve started, even if it isn’t a good as you hoped it would be.

Getting good at anything worthwhile takes forever, don’t be derailed by fear, especially fear of failure. Failure is inevitable, and indeed a necessary step on the road to success because failure is the foundation of growth - embrace it and learn from it. If like many of us you have a voice in your head intent on reminding you how much you suck, tell it to shut the fuck up, and go back to doing the work. Anyone who takes all that to heart is going to get results eventually. Bloody hell! Maybe I should write a self-help book next?... 

7. You often ask the photographers to recommend a photo book during your interviews. Which photo book would you like to recommend? 

There are several books by friends and previous podcast guests that I could heartily recommend, but I don’t want to single anyone out so I’ll ignore them all! I got Todd Hido’s ‘Intimate Distance’ for Christmas, which is basically a career retrospective to date, and that is a lovely thing. 

8. When coming up with questions for the people you are interviewing do you approach it by thinking of more generalised questions that will possibly catch the interest of a wider audience, or is it a bit of a self indulgent process when coming up with questions? 

This is something I agonise over because I have become obsessed with the interview process, and the nuances of asking questions and how to do that well. It’s a fascinating thing. As I said above, I try to spend at least some of the time thinking about universal stuff that can be of interest to everyone. It depends on the guest and what seems interesting about them in particular, how nervous I am and whether there’s an ‘r’ in the month and all kinds of factors. The one thing I always have in the back of my mind is ‘don’t be too ‘industry’, a bit of that is fine, because inevitably a lot of my listeners are professionals. I try and steer away from that, and I certainly try not to be self-indulgent, unless by that you mean asking questions that may help me personally, in which case the answer is damned right I am!

9. Would you consider expanding on the podcasts, possibly putting on a live panel talk with other photographers and a live audience? 

Yes absolutely, I’d be very much up for doing something like that and there are plans afoot already in that direction, so watch this space, as they say. 

10. Who or what in photography is really exciting you at the moment? 

I think it’s the fact that photography has been forced to change with and adapt to the times we are living in - and they are fascinating, albeit scary times. The digital/Instagram/iPhone revolution has meant that we all have to ask ourselves, not only how the hell am I going to earn a living, but what is photography even for now? If a bazillion images are being taken and uploaded to the internet every week, what’s the value of my contribution? Assuming that 90 percent of those pictures are of cute cats and plates of food, some of them are really good. How can us ‘professionals’ or ‘serious artists’ differentiate ourselves and our work from all that? What do we have to say about the world and our place in it? It’s not enough to just be a good photographer, that’s for sure. 

There’s no mystery to the process any more. Those hard won professional skills that could only be acquired with an apprenticeship of assisting, a lot of trial and error, and a significant financial investment in film and processing can now be learnt from YouTube in a fraction of the time and for zero cost (aside from the camera itself). 

For those of us who started in a pre-internet world, the digital revolution has been like a slow moving tornado ripping through the photographic landscape. Everything we thought we knew got thrown up in the air, and the pieces are still coming back down. But those in their 30’s or younger couldn’t care less about all that ancient history crap, because they’ve never known anything else. They are learning how to work with the situation as it is, and the up side is that you get to try and leverage an unprecedented opportunity to build a relatively huge audience for your work. Us old fogeys need to learn from them and try to get with the programme, and that’s what’s exciting.

A Small Voice Podcast - End of Year Report

It's funny how things sometimes just happen. Last Spring I started listening to podcasts in earnest for the first time. By September I was producing one myself and here we are a year and thirty five interviews later. For anyone who may be curious about how and why it happened, here is my attempt at working that out for myself.

Once I began searching for photography podcasts as a listener, I couldn’t really find the one I imagined must surely be out there somewhere. “Someone ought to do this”, I thought, followed quickly by the realisation that maybe that someone should be me. I figured that I probably had the right skill set to at least not suck at it. So I let the idea percolate for a while to see if it would sod off. It wouldn’t. And that, in my experience, is usually a sign that one should pursue the damned idea.

I was attracted to the democracy and accessibility of podcasting. We live in a world in which the old barriers to entry are now virtually non-existent. In photography, podcasting, writing - all creative endeavours really - the gatekeepers have largely fallen away, replaced by a Punk Rock ethos in which all you really need is the desire and time to get off your butt and do it yourself. My problem was that since there was absolutely no chance of monetising the thing (initially, at least) I had better come up with some compelling reasons for doing it aside from income, otherwise why bother? I might as well use the significant amount of time it takes pursuing personal projects, volunteering in Oxfam, starting a business, writing a novel or watching Pornhub. So I was forced to think about the why.

I was a bit lost, both personally and professionally. I was depressed, frankly, and so had withdrawn from the world to some extent. I had allowed friendships to stagnate, acquaintences to fall by the wayside, my creative impulses to diminish, my love of photography to fade and most of my professional contacts to wither on the vine (the one thing you absolutely cannot afford to do as a freelancer). So a podcast could be a way to re-engage with the world, with my peers, with photographers I respected and admired, and to try and work out what they’d done right in their career and practice that I so obviously had not. It would hopefully also encourage me to re-engage with photography itself, to find inspiration for my own projects and to push through all the self criticism and negativity that is my default modus operandi. Finally, it would be something completely new, without the psychological baggage of photography, to which I could apply some of the lessons I had learned as a result of trying to figure out how and why I’d screwed up - lessons about doing the work, consistency, pushing back fear, persistence, being vulnerable, taking a chance, risking failure and criticism, diving in and working it out as you go. Then, having applied them to something new, I could hopefully begin to apply them to my photographic practice.

I also realised that in this DIY world of self-publishing photobooks by means of Kickstarter, the cultivation of a good-sized social network is a vital element in the fundraising equation. I had failed to understand that and could only gawp in envy at the friends and contemporaries who had slowly but surely built Facebook and Twitter followings in the thousands. I had about fifty Facebook friends and no Twitter account. You can’t get backing if nobody knows you exist. So it struck me that one effective way to build a network was to create something of value, free of charge, and put it out there whilst expecting absolutely nothing in return. That thing could be a blog, or simply the sharing of work. But in my case there was really wasn't any work to share. So a podcast it would be.

The million dollar question is "has it worked?", right? You know, it really has. I have re-engaged with the world, it has energised and inspired me to continue with my own personal projects, I have picked up a lot of invaluable advice (by cunningly pretending to ask for it on behalf of my listeners) and I have confirmed that, as I suspected, 95% of all photographers are facing exactly the same challenges. Above all, I have met a cross-section of brilliant, friendly, talented people who, because I get strangely attached to people very quickly, I now consider to be friends. So I still have no clue how I'm going to pay off my mortgage but it seems to me that what I have gained over the past twelve months is somehow more important than that.

Thanks to every single one of my past guests for graciously agreeing to chat, all the people who have supported the podcast from the outset if only by letting me know that they like it and get it, my all too exclusive cadre of 'patrons' (I think there are six of them) each of whom kicks in the cost of an over-priced Flat White every month, thus covering some of the tube fares, and, most of all, the loyal listeners who I hope have enjoyed and gained inspiration from these interviews. At the beginning, I pledged that if it wasn't 'working out' or if I wasn't enjoying it after a year I would simply knock it on the head. Well, I'm not sure whether it's working out or not, since I neglected to define what that meant, but I am enjoying it and far from being ready to quit I feel like I'm just getting started.

Tim Takes A Bow

I was delighted to receive an email from the one-and-only Tim Andrews asking me very politely if I would be interested in taking part in his photography project, Over The Hill, in which, over the past nine years, he has had his portrait taken by some four hundred different photographers. For anyone interested in portrait photography, I reccommend a visit to the website where you can read Tim's explanation of the project's origins and evolution. In a nutshell: at the age of 54, Tim gave up work as a solicitor after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system mainly affecting the motor system for which there is currently no cure. Shortly afterwards he replied to an advertisement asking for photographic models. Other such shoots followed and a year later he realised he had created an accidental art project in which he would be both subject and collaborator.

Knowing a number of people who have shot Tim over the years, I was pleased and flattered to be asked so my immediate thought was “absolutely!”, followed closely by a sense of dread whereby the hyper-critical bully who lives in my head started barking, “How are you gonna shoot a bloke who’s been photographed by so many good photographers?”, “How are you gonna live up to that?”, and my old favourite, “What if you fuck it up and they discover how much you suck?”  Fortunately, having listened to this little Nazi for several decades, I am finally learning to tell the bastard to shut up.

A few days after I had readily agreed to feel the fear and do it anyway Tim announced on his blog that he felt the time had come to bring the whole epic endeavour to a close. At which point my instinctive reaction was, “Wow! Take a bow, man!” If I lived in a cartoon (which, frankly, I kind of do) there would have been a ping accompanied by the appearance of little lightbulb above my head. Thus was born my one idea for the shoot.

At some point I decided that Tim should take his bow surrounded by a flurry of motion blur as crowds of people passed all around him, a conceit that would serve as a metaphor for not only Tim’s Parkinson’s but for his incredible positivity and determination in the face of it. Involuntary movement (dyskinesia) is a common symptom of the disease and I had seen a video in which Tim’s hands were shaking uncontollably (though it's not really a symptom he suffers from these days). So the way I put it to him as I explained the idea over coffee just before the shoot was, “Tim, this time you’re the one who is going to be still!”

Tim was brilliant, of course, despite having to stand patiently in the middle of Oxford Street bowing theatrically as the world passed decidely impatiently around him. In fact, one of those joyous coincidences that sometimes accompany the creative process had emerged as we talked before the shoot. It turns out Tim comes from a theatrical family. His mother was a dancer, both his children are actors and indeed he once had dreams of being an actor himself. So that gave the idea an unexpected layer of significance that I could never have anticipated and it was fun to give him a chance to let that aspect of his personality show itself.

Anyway - full disclosure and all that - I kind of did fuck it up. The obvious way to do the picture would have been to use a combination of flash to make sure the subject was frozen, nice and sharp, and a slow shutter to allow the people in the background to blur, but, perhaps because that wasn’t quite the look I was after and I thought the flash would spoil the aesthetic, I decided not to do that. Instead I reckoned if I got Tim to hold really still, Victorian portrait style, I would get away with a quarter or half second exposure and no flash. Well not so much, it turns out! This may come as no surprise but in most of the shots he’s really not sharp, to put it mildly. Rookie error, right? Photography 101, right? Cue much swearing and self-flagellation. But, what the hell, I’m over it. It was great to meet Tim and an honour to be one of the very last photographers to be part of Over The Hill.  And as Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

P.S. Read Tim's post about the shoot on his blog.

Spooks, Ghosts and Ghouls

The street I live at the end of - Winston Road, N16 - has the best halloween party in London. I have no idea how it go to be such an epic event but let's just say it justifies inclusion in the Time Out listings. For about two hours on one night a year, this typical residential road in north London is transformed into total bedlam - which is entirely appropriate, obviously - in which hundreds of little trick or treating ghosts, zombies, vampires and other miscellaneous horrors descend in droves on the obliging residents to collect as much booty as possible before disappearing into the shadows (and thence to bed). This year they even had a group of young girls performing a faithful and brilliantly executed rendition of the dance routine from Michael Jackson's Thriller video. The adults, as you can see, don't hold back in getting into the swing of things and a gloriously ghoulish time is had by all.

Belonging, Coexistence & Community

These portraits were shot during a recent commission for Tate Modern to document an educational workshop on 'belonging, coexistence and community' at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark (one of the coolest and most iconic art galleries on the planet, by the way.) The participants were Danish students and some of their peers from the Red Cross School - refugees from Syria and elsewhere sent abroad for safety by their parents.

I wish I'd had more time to do these, but the workshop was being run like a Swiss watch to a tight schedule by artist Albert Potrony and since this was not part of my original brief to document the process but an idea I threw in at the last minute I had to knock them out super quick as and when I could. The objects, which are being held by the Red Cross kids, were brought in by the Danish kids to represent the themes of the workshop. The client liked the idea immediately and loves these portraits. In fact, they've commissioned me to do more of the same. Which is all merely a long-winded way of making the point that it's always a good move to throw in your own ideas and therefore provide a bit of extra value that the client didn't anticipate.

Oxford Circus Chiaroscuro

"There's a reason they call it a circus" - overheard commuter

I don't know much about art or painting so I've never known what the word 'chiaroscuro' meant. I still didn't when I took these the other day. I was just playing with the harsh sunlight and deep shadows amongst the craziness of Oxford Circus during rush hour. Then yesterday, by coincidence, I was reading a book and I learned that that's what chiaroscuro is. It's the technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation. The artistic distribution of light and dark masses in a picture. (Italian: chiar = bright + oscuro = dark). So there you go.

Louisiana Museum Shoot

Here's a short film shot by Dan Saul featuring some of my images, currently being shown at Tate Modern. This workshop took place at the fabulous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

Going Coastal

It is the dead of night and I'm lying wide awake in a crappy room, in a crappy guesthouse in Southend-on-Sea, a favourite coastal resort in Essex's blue collar heartland, where generations of holidaymakers have sought respite from the travails of working-class life by sitting on a shingle beach and gazing into the grey waters of the Thames estuary. Here, as in similar towns across the country, gangs of teenage girls in too-short skirts teeter on impossibly high heels, bar hopping in celebration of a 21st birthday or an impending marriage; young men get into drunken brawls outside pubs and nightclubs and families seek out the bright lights and primary colours of the theme park rides and amusement arcades.

In the street outside my window, a loudly contested dispute has finally moved elsewhere but is replaced by the sharp clatter of a discarded beer can rolling around in the sea breeze. The noise is so loud it seems to reverberate around my skull, denying me the chance of sleep. After what seems like hours of this auditory torture I can stand it no longer. I venture outside, half naked, in search of the source of my torment. I wander around in the gloom, peer under parked cars, scan the road, but the can is nowhere in sight, and indeed from that moment on it will remain silent, as though some unseen force is toying with me. I return to the room expecting the clatter to resume the instant I am back in bed but instead it is replaced by the relentless, muffled rantings of a drunken lunatic in the guesthouse next door who conspires with my snoring roommates to make worse my insomnia. The forecast for the rest of the week is for rain and a planned rail strike has scuppered any hope of an early escape back to London.

My two travelling companions are friends and fellow photographers. We are grown men and between us have three mortgages, one marriage, two children and another forthcoming - mine. Why are we staying in this shit-hole? Why do we embark on these absurd odysseys, these fool's errands? Perhaps to satisfy an obsessive desire, a compulsion, to document the human condition (or "life today", as William Eggleston once put it) in all its fascinating diversity. Or to feed an addiction to the momentary excitement, the visceral high, of discovering a good picture on a contact sheet or laptop screen. Or perhaps, like the drunken lunatic next door, we are simply madmen.  View Images »»