The Photographic Mid-Life Crisis

I am 56 years of age, and therefore I am more than halfway through my life. I started working with professional photography in 1985 as a wide eyed innocent, eager to learn and ambitious to succeed. From then until now I have had to change and adapt.

It has been a period of seismic change in communication, from analogue to digital, from local to global. In 1985 I worked with knives and glue to make magazines, I telephoned photographers to commission them and hoped that they picked up the phone. Photographers worked with film in an environment that was competitive, but sustainable.

Today, we all carry our phones with us, and receive commissions via text or email if we get commissioned at all. Our images are digital, our workflow screen based. Things have changed rapidly, and forever. We will not go back to the past, and the future shows no sign of slowing down in its desire to evolve.

Anyone my age, a few years younger and older has had to live through those changes. They have had to be quick witted and innovative, constantly developing business plans, investing in new equipment and new thinking, whilst maintaining a sense of their abilities and reasons for being a photographer.

That has taken its toll on many. How do I know? Because I regularly speak with photographers close to my age and a similar conversation often develops. It is a conversation based on confusion and a sense of weariness. A sense that everything has been tried and an acceptance that little has worked.

Photographic practices and expectations have had to respond to the reality of the commissioned environment, whilst the acceptance of the impact age can have on relationship’s with clients is recognised and dealt with.

Young people like to commission people of a similar age to themselves. We recognise this as we used to do the same, we may not agree with it, but we know that it happens. As those of our age move into senior management or leave the industry, we no longer have commissioners from our generation to connect with, our touch points have been lost.

A belief that the new, the latest thing, is always better, more exciting, more relevant and therefore a clever commission is naive and yet without a desire to experiment a medium cannot evolve. It is a Catch 22 situation.

I am not an old man railing at the youth, I am an old man shining a light on people of my age who have had, and continue to have a tough time in the photographic industry working as photographers. The impact that an uncertainty of income and insecurity of employment has on anybody’s mental well-being is well documented. The addition of a constantly moving series of expectations provides further stress and anxiety.

Many speak to me about going into teaching. The lure of a monthly pay check in return for sharing a life of photographic experience is an obvious and tempting solution to the shifting sands of freelance work. However, the expectations of teaching are for more complex and demanding than a requirement of knowing a subject. It may require qualifications not available within photography in the past and teaching experience that those working within the commissioned environment will not have. The truth is that a move into teaching may well involve, starting again, slowly but surely gaining the knowledge and experience required outside of photography to progress. A difficult realisation for someone who has spent the past thirty years working their way up the ladder.

There is however, some potential good news for those who have cared for their work and developed an archive. Once you have moved into the role of a senior figure within the photographic community and by doing so hopefully your images will have entered into the realm of historical importance, there is potential for books to be published of your work and prints to be sold. This may seem like a weak positive but there are many photographers who have seen this hope become a reality.

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Stephen Hawking in which a view was put forward that he had developed his most important and significant thinking prior to his thirtieth birthday. It is not unusual for there to be a creative explosion, and resulting success in the early years of any career. It is when we are at our most energetic, imaginative and ambitious. However, early success can lead to a career of regret if those early highs are not repeated. A far more stoic approach is to accept that success and enjoy those moments without having the need to repeat them. Something that is much easier said than done I know, but it is an achievable aim.

I have no answers to the issues I have raised here, but as I do not see them being widely spoken about, with specific reference to photographers, I thought it was worth writing this article. There is no shortage of coverage across news and media outlets concerning mental well being and this can only be a good thing. Talking is good, and the need for an arm around the shoulder is one of the reasons why I started the A Photographic Life podcast with its final words of “Take Care!”

Perhaps some of the photographic institutions and festivals might like to take up the baton at this point and consider talks and workshops to support photographers dealing with these issues. I know that I would be willing to contribute whatever help I am able to. They could support photographers looking to move into education, those attempting to re-build their client bases, and those unable to identify their transferable skills looking to move into alternate areas of employment. I see many initiatives for the young and emerging (and that is fine), but little if anything for the established photographer who may need just as much help, but who does not want the commonly offered paid for portfolio reviews and pay to enter competitions.

Established does not necessarily mean successful, it does not mean coping, it does not mean anything, other than miles on the clock and sometimes a vehicle that has travelled more than a few journeys needs some love, care and attention.

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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

4 comments

  1. Eventually the pain subsides and realise how lucky I was . Now to concentrate on the passion of photography leaving behind all the negatives. A great and comforting article by Grant.

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