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.