We were sent this personal anonymous account by a photographer who wanted people to read his story. We read it and decided to post it to encourage debate and thoughts on his experiences as well as your own.
I took my last picture as a professional photographer on the 21st December 2006. I was walking away from a twenty five year love affair. I had been thinking about stopping for years, but I told myself that it was unthinkable. I had been brought up with a clear message that ‘giving up’ was for losers. For me, being a photographer was more than a job, it was a vocation. I had followed this vocation for almost twenty five-years and I was determined not to give up. Not to be a loser.
Anyway, what would I do? What could I do? I was afraid that if I stopped being a photographer, my world would come to an end. Three years earlier I had relocated to Bristol. A new city, a new start! I told myself I would use the move to re-launch my career. When Art Directors asked why I moved, I would tell them that it was for family reasons. I told them that I would be close to the M4/M5 corridor and I could cover the South West. I hid the reality that I had exhausted every possibility of staying in London.
While in London, things had been bad for a while. I had lost my studio and I had remortgaged my home to the tune of £120,000. I told myself that the money wasn’t important. Photography was my vocation. I believed divine intervention would see me through. Keep the faith I told myself. Believe in yourself! But my faith was running out. I thought it would be pretty easy to find photographic work in the South West of England. I believed I had the pedigree. I used to work for most of the quality magazines and weekend supplements. Surely that would be enough to guarantee me some work. I might even pick up a part time teaching post, leaving me time to pursue personal projects and commissioned work.
The word ‘used to’ rang in my ears. It had been a long time since I had walked into a news agent, and bought the numerous quality titles that ‘used to’ publish my work. I no longer recognised the names on the picture credits. Getting work, any work; commissions, part time, teaching anything proved difficult. I told myself to diversify, to specialise, to reinvent myself…anything. I was torn between realising that I had to make a living and wanting to be considered an artist. Should I provide a service or should I, the photographer be the one who dictated the photograph. I built new web sites, printed new folios, posted new mail-shots. My in-tray remained empty.
Throughout all this, alcohol had been my unfailingly, loyal and steady ally. Alcohol wasn’t the answer to my problems, but it sure was good enough until the real answer came along. I didn’t drink much, well not as much as some people. I didn’t drink in the day, so I wasn’t an alcoholic. I just drank….. well every day. Quite a lot. Every day. I looked at my life. I was forty five, married with two young children and I was lost. I was wretchedly unhappy. What had started as a love affair with photography had become an affliction. I was stuck in a sea of self pity, blaming the world for my problems, and then turning that anger back on myself and blaming, criticizing and really hating myself for letting this happen to me. I tormented myself that I was a loser.
The injustice of it made me angrier. I told myself that it was the fault of Picture Libraries, I blamed Art Directors who didn’t understand photography and magazines with no vision, I raged at Art colleges for churning out too many photography graduates. I blamed everything and everyone. Especially me. I even went to speak to a Priest, believing that I was cursed. I told myself that God was against me.
Devil or not, the economy was changing and photographers fees were falling. When I started as an assistant in the mid- eighties, editorial fees averaged five hundred pounds a day plus expenses. Freelance assistants got around sixty pounds a day. Twenty years later photographer’s fees were closer to that of an assistant in the eighties. And everything got a lot more expensive. Digital cameras, specialist software, high powered computers, state of the art monitors were all necessary. But magazines were suffering too and many were closing down, as advertising found other outlets to spread their word. It all felt very bleak.
At about this time, I started doing some voluntary work at a ‘soup kitchen’ in Weston-super-Mare. I loved it. It brought me into real contact with people who had real problems. As a photographer I had met a richly diverse range of people, but I rarely made real contact with people. The subject and I would meet at either side of a lens because we had an agenda, mine to get the best photograph and theirs (presumably) to present their best image. We were there for ourselves, not for each other.
Meeting the people at the soup kitchen was a new experience for me. I was meeting new people, without the security of the camera to hide behind, without feeling that I had to take something away with me. We talked to each other because we wanted to. There was a brief temptation to photograph the people, but I felt I would have been ‘taking’ something from people who had nothing.
I can pinpoint the exact turning point in my life. I was walking my dog one November morning when I realised that I didn’t have to be unhappy. Encouraged by my work at the soup-kitchen, I had enrolled on a counselling course. Here I had discovered that I had choices. I didn’t have to be a photographer. I chose to be a photographer. If being a photographer made me unhappy, I could choose to change. It was at that point that I stopped telling myself and instead I started to listen to myself. I got a perverse delight when Art Directors phoned me offering work. “I don’t take pictures any more” I would say, “I’m no longer a photographer”. I would listen for their response.
“Oh really, what are you doing now?” they would ask. I would tell them and again I would listen for their response. I was angry. I teased them. I wanted to hear the surprise in their voices; I wanted to hear the platitudes of good wishes, and goodbyes. I was starting my new life as a Support Worker (£7.20 per hour) at a Residential Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre.
Photography no longer had a hold on me. I was free. I had been in love with photography for almost twenty five years and our relationship had gone sour. I hated the way she had stung me out for years with false promises and thin hopes. Living on a tightrope of uncertainty had taken away my confidence. I felt hollow. Beaten. I had believed in photography but photography had stopped caring for me a long time ago.
That’s only part of the truth. I believed that I have given my entire self to photography. The reality was that it fitted in nicely around my drinking. I had looked to photography to fulfil my lack of self esteem. “Like my pictures, like me!” I expected more from photography than it was willing to give back to me. I thought that being a photographer was who I was, but I wore it like a suit that was two sizes too big. I hadn’t learned to accept myself.
Do I have any regrets? There are many things I miss; travel, new people, new situations, the privilege of access to people and places, the thrill of seeing my printer deliver the perfect image, the pleasure interpreting what I saw into a still image. It has been helpful to recognise my own part in my downfall. I regret that I didn’t understand how to progress my career when it was going well. I regret that I chose to celebrate or commiserate with a drink, rather than facing up to my successes and failures and making the most of them when I needed to.
I regret that the world changed and I couldn’t hang on. There are others, but hindsight can be a curse if I choose to see only my mistakes. I used to live in fear of losing my life as a photographer. I thought it would be the end of the world. When it was over, it was the end of that world. Life is very different now and constantly fulfilling. I now counsel people who are dependent on Alcohol.
It’s different. Very different.