“It’s so difficult though, if you don’t apply then it seems as though you’re failing, and other people’s work is lauded.”
This comment was posted on Twitter by a photographer recently. A successful, established and well thought of photographer. A photographer whose work many people admire. And yet in this comment they revealed themselves as being just as wrapped up in what I believe to be a dominant false narrative that photographers are being sold as any young photographer just starting out. But how did we get to this place that so many photographers find themselves in? A place where they believe that success is based on competition wins and anxiety is fuelled by the very competitions that claim to provide success in return for payment.
The obsession with the ‘self’ seems to be an increasingly prevalent and negative pre-occupation in our lives today. Not only within photographic practice but throughout every aspect of our lives, a situation most commonly attributed to an obsessive relationship with multiple online social media platforms and the need to be ‘liked’ including the image led Instagram.
The exploration of ‘self’ and the documentation of intensely personal situations is not new within the photographic medium and there is no doubt that this work can be both creatively and socially important. It is an approach promoted through magazines and competitions edited and judged by people whose primary interests lie in this area. I have no problem with any of this in theory, however this work from its very inception can I believe lead a photographer to a potential end-goal that in itself feeds the very people who promote its importance but not the bank accounts of those creating it.
Lets do some photo maths.
Personal project (self-funded) + portfolio review (paid for) + competition entry (paid for) + bursary (self-initiated) + exhibition (self-funded) = magazine article in photo press (unpaid) = successful career as photographer (freelance)
A simple equation but is it true? Well of course just like photography today it is not only available in black and white. The truth as I see it is that for the minority it can be true but for the majority it is an expensive, mentally draining and deceptive falsity. One that has been developed by a cabal of photographic gatekeepers whose interest it is to continue to promote and market an understanding of photography that is in their best interest but not necessarily of the photographers themselves.
It hasn’t always been this way and the benefit of age (I have been involved with photography since 1985) allows me to remember how it once was. Now I am not putting on any rose coloured spectacles at this point and looking back on a golden halcyon age. But the conversations I am having with photographers who have believed the mantra I have out lined above, indicate that it doesn’t provide the outcomes they are looking for, to get commissioned and earn a living.
Many photographers find themselves with work that has been applauded or not by the photo elite which does not indicate a place for them within the commissioning environment. Please notice that I am once again deliberately not using the word ‘commercial’ in relation to commissioned work. This is not an ‘art’ versus ‘commercial’ debate, this is a photography discussion based upon a need to place work within a paid situation that is true to the photographers creating it.
Commissioned work does not have to mean a rejection of personal visual language and personal subject matter. However, it does require a step away from an introspective approach to how the work can be seen, and it requires tangental thinking to see how it could be seen and used outside of the narrow focus of the photographic community.
If what I am saying is making sense then that’s great, if not just take a moment to question the false narrative I am suggesting here. How many people who are in a position to commission photography do you think are really interested in photography enough to spend £9.99 a month on a magazine? Or visit a photo festival? Or check out the winners of a photo competition? The engaged photo community may do all of these things but they are not the ones who are commissioning work.
The conversations I am continuing to have are becoming increasingly positive and I can see a renewed vigour and energy in approach to projects and perhaps most importantly an understanding of how work, work for those creating it.
That change is not based on a change of work or visual language but it is based on a change of understanding, of stepping back and questioning the narrative many have been given and recognising that their are other stories out there.
I am not the only person beginning to question the worth of paid for photo competitions, reviews and gatekeepers with the keys to a supposed magical land filled with milk, honey and success. The emperor may continue shopping but his purchases are looking increasingly non-sensical.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.
His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=3915s.
© Grant Scott 2019