Bob Dylan once stated that he used to care but things have changed. I agree with Bob, but I do still care. I care about the commissioned photographer today just as much as I did when I commissioned them. I care about the issues they experience and the future they face.
It used to be the case that self-publishing your work was a final sign of desperation. It was vanity publishing only undertaken by those whose work had been rejected by established publishers as not worthy of publication. To turn to Dylan again, things have changed, self-publishing is now an accepted aspect of a photographers practice. It used to be the case that if you were a photographer that was all you did. You had a studio and a receptionist to take calls and deal with your paperwork; I can remember this being the case into the mid-nineties. Photographers had full-time assistants and paid them a salary. If you had an agent they kept you busy. If you didn’t make enough from your photography to pay your bills, you might teach photography. You might teach workshops or evening classes, at art school or college. Whatever you did, photography gave you an income. Large or small it was enough to get by.
Many photographers are finding that this is no longer the case. As the joke goes, “What’s the difference between a 16″ pizza and a photographer? The pizza can feed a family of four!”
So, what does that mean for many photographers? Well, I am going to make a suggestion that was once as unacceptable as vanity publishing. It is this. Make your money however you need and continue to work as a photographer, even if your income does not come solely from photography. If you want to continue to refer to yourself as a photographer, that’s fine and if you want to play down other roles you have taken on that is fine also. I know you do not need me to give you any validation to do this, but many photographers I speak with feel a sense of embarrassment and/or failure in having to accept the reality that they can no longer make a living from their profession. They are concerned that their clients will judge them negatively if they find out that photography has become part of their income and is no longer all of their income. There is no shame in accepting an economic reality and it is better to re-assess your relationship with the medium than to fall out of love with it.
I have written recently about the expectation we can have of photography and the relationship this can have with on a photographer’s mental health https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2022/09/30/mental-wellbeing-and-photography-cause-or-cure/ and I do not intend to go into detail about this here. However, I think it is clear that our mental health is more important than what others may think of us.
This may seem like a strange and unnecessary point to make to anyone who has not worked as a commissioned photographer, but to those who know, it will make sense. Do not cling to a failing business model, however difficult it may seem to let go. It has always been the case that photographers will not be available for every job and no one will know what you are doing when you can’t accept a commission. So, do not feel that by taking on another role, that you are no longer a photographer. Instead see the decision as a sensible action to support you in continuing to work as a photographer. If you don’t believe me take some advice from Bob, “Some things are too hot to touch, The human mind can only stand so much, You can’t win with a losing hand.” Today, it’s also okay to change the game, to readdress the balance and create a new way for commissioned photographers to remain photographers.
Dr. 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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022
Hi Grant, the points you make in this post are very important for some of us, as we navigate the complex work/life/income balancethat is contemporary photography. It used to be that those who can’t earn enough to teach, but over time I have realised that a lot of the photographers I reference and like are actually university lecturers and photographers as it lets them earn enough money to be able to practice there craft of photography without worrying for the need to earn income or work creating images that are not in sync with there established practice because they need to make money.
Dear Michael thank you for your kind words. The only issue with this that I have seen is photographers then crushing the dreams of young photographers based on the lack of commissioned success outside of academia by the lecturer. It should also be promoted that any job can inform and support photography not just teaching that now often requires a PHD to be considered for employment. Best wishes Grant