There used to be a plan, a template, a blueprint that could be used, that could be followed, that led to a career in photography. Study, assist, go solo, build a client base, make money and keep going for as long as you can. A simple series of steps that were hard, but achievable. However, that plan started to creak with the arrival of digital capture and the subsequent drop in commissioning budgets, but the basics stayed true. Now I hear from many photographers that the plan doesn’t work.
The majority of photographers work on a freelance basis, a form of employment that breeds insecurity. Every photographer know this, but it doesn’t make the reality any easier. A sense of order can help with the feelings of anxiety that insecurity encourages, however when that order breaks down there is little left to support the independent worker financially or spiritually.
The photography industry has been in a state of flux for nearly two decades now and that is a long time. Such flux is demanding and tiring, it drains even the stiffest resolve. It has disrupted the plan, breaking it forever. Such disruption is seen as exciting for some keen to write and speak about the creative opportunities amongst chaos, but the majority of photographers see no positivity in the disappearance of a clear plan to follow.
The issue today is that without a plan, misinformation becomes the common currency. Some remain hopeful that the old plan will reappear, others believe that it is still in place, others promote and believe in new yet untested plans. Such photographic ‘Chinese Whispers’ can lead to further anxiety.
I believe the truth is that there will be no new plan and that the old plan will not return. The photographic marketplace is now saturated with photographers wanting to be seen, heard, published and paid. The old plan worked when it was less competitive and when photography was less accessible but today any plan would need to take into account the proliferation of photographers alongside the ease of image sharing in the 21st Century.
So what is the answer? I think it is to be light footed to be willing and able to evolve, but on your own terms.
To be aware of what is happening, but not to feel pressured to engage in everything you see, hear or are told. To create a practice that is true to you but that also meets your expectations, whilst ensuring that those expectations are realistic and well researched. This does not only mean making photographs. The new potential for the role of the photographer is a more multi-faceted one, than it was in the past. If you are in the game to only make photographs you may find this suggestion sacrilegious. I get that, however, I can only reflect what I see.
As a photographer you may not want to hear that writing, speaking, moving image, digital manipulation, publishing, computational photography, research and digital art maybe part of your future alongside a multitude of transferable and soft skills that photographers did not have to previously contemplate, but that is a reality. I cannot count the amount of times I have heard that photographers make photographs and that is where it begins and ends. If you believe this then that’s fine, I don’t! So, we may have to agree to disagree.
I am by nature an optimistic realist. My glass is always at least half full, but I don’t expect it to refill itself. I am not an unrealistic optimist. Therefore, I remain positive about the future of photography, if photographers take responsibility for creating their own structures for their own futures. In a sense this means making your own plan that works for you, a personal plan, not a universal plan, just expect it to require you to do more than just make photographs.
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 2023
I think, photographers are generally resilient and will find a way forward to create sustainable practices. For some that will mean shooting video, as a sideline to their photographic practice. For others, it will involve a return to film as a way of standing out from the digital herd. Some of us have taken to teaching and running workshops or becoming lecturers as well trying to remain active photographers. It really depends on where they see themselves as creative professionals.
I personally have been struggling for the past few years to find a way forward. I spent a long time working on becoming a fashion photography, I was working but never cracked the big time as a fashion photographer. Once I decided that I needed to change as I was getting older and the models were staying the same age and I started to feel like it was time for a new genre of photography to explore.
I was lucky as I managed to complete a MA in Photography which helped me gain a focus but also left me feeling a little lost for a while. As subsequently I have not found a way to make money directly from my own photography other than using it as an aid to being a lecturer. Now I am not teaching, I am looking at ways to move forward again with the business of being a photographer.
So discussions on how photographers view the pathways to being monetarily successful as a photographer catch my eye.
This is made me realise that there are a number of paths that I can pursue and as I get older I realise that some of those are probably not going to happen and yet I still want to be successful as a photographer. It is now up to me to define what I view as success as a photographer. So I am now trying to think through my ideas to enable me to be flexible as live changes and build a practice that is flexible but still focused on the kind of images that I now want to make. I am still looking how to make money from this and that is proving elusive and for that I would love to find someone or a group of people who could offer mentorship in how I proceed that I think is what a lot of photographers are now looking for as the old model you refer to has become harder or even disappeared.
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I recognise the issues you mention and unfortunately MAs can sometimes confuse rather than clarify how you fit into the industry. It is why I am launching a new MA online next year. I wish you luck in finding a mentor, it is something we discuss on next week’s podcast.
I found myself chatting with a salesman from Calumet Edinburgh at The Photography Show at the NEC in 2018 and he said that the graduating students in demand as assistants by professionals in the City were the ones who shot film for their personal work or their course work at Napier. He said the pros in Edinburgh didn’t want slapdash assistants who looked at a camera screen or laptop and who said “That will be near enough, we can sort it out later in computer post-processing.”
Not something I have ever heard working in the industry. It is a comment that makes little if any sense.
The business of photography is a war of attrition.