The Long and Winding Road

To me it doesn't matter much whether you're black or white, male or female, rich or poor: becoming a photographer is no easy task. Beyond the glamour and excitement of living a roaming and freelance lifestyle, the journey is all too often painful, thankless, heartbreaking..

This blog is a discussion of my journey as I develop my career within this industry. As well as discussing what I am currently up to, I'll write about some of the things that I wish I'd known when I was getting started.

Hopefully this may provide a short-cut around some of the obstacles that could have taken me months or even years to work around and understand, as well as give a realistic insight into the highs and lows of the day-to-day life of a documentary photographer.

Money

 Looking forward to getting out on the road. 

Looking forward to getting out on the road. 

So yeah. Maybe it sounds exciting that I'm planning on taking a photo road trip for the next couple of weeks, but right now I'm sat around on my arse waiting. I'm not waiting for anyone in particular. I can up and leave without any physical hinderance. The problem right now is money. 

For about a week I've been expecting a good sum of money to arrive into my bank account. It will be enough to see me through the next month or so while I travel. I was expecting it towards the end of last week but have only just recieved proper confirmation that it will be with me in the next day or so. To be fair it's really not too long when you're not particularly thinking about it, but it's an endless wait when I don't have much to get on with in the city in the meantime..

Cashflow in this career is unpredictable. While I might have shot a job or sold some work and know that money is on the way in, knowing exactly when that will be is a big issue and can really cause a lot of stress and slow me down when I need it for a project or anything else.

I rarely get paid for anything straight away. That sounds like a complaint but it's more just a statement of fact. Usually I'll be waiting for payments for somewhere between 30 and 90 days. Even small chunks of it. Just this afternoon I received an email telling me that I can expect payment some time this week for an invoice that I sent out in July. For £100. Quids in..

This whole issue is something I've become used to and have learnt to work around but I do still get jealous of my friends who have a steady, reliable salary. 

So anyway, where does money come from? The answer to this is that it varies. Rarely do I run into photographers who are working for a single publication enough that they can sustain themselves with that work entirely. In fact I'm not sure I know anyone that does that. More commonly you'll find that photographers are constantly looking around for new clients while trying to sustain their relationships with their old ones. It's a constant battle but something that you have to learn to get good at. 

But who are these clients?

So while living in central London from 2013 up until the beginning of 2017, a major source of my income came from assisting. London's full of photographers, and more importantly photographers who work in fields that have the budgets to pay for assistants (namely fashion and advertising). This is something I've stopped now but let it be known that I wouldn't have a portfolio without the flexibility and good pay that it can provide - my entire series, Child Celibate, was funded solely from the money I was earning through assisting. I'll dedicate an entire post to the ins and outs of this in the nearish future. 

The next thing that was bringing cash into my bank was selling stories that I'd funded myself. Basically any personal project that I shoot I'll pitch around to publications and see who might be interested in publishing them. This is a fairly complicated process when you haven't done it before and so, again, I will be shedding more light on this in its own dedicated post.

After that, once you have sold some work to a publication, they may well come back to you and ask you to start shooting for them. This is harder to maintain because you have no control over when someone might ask you to shoot for them, and publications are often either using someone they've had shooting for them for a long time, or hiring someone once or twice before moving on to someone else. 

Another way to work with a publication is through pitching your own story ideas to them and seeing if they'd be game to give you some money to shoot it. Again it helps to have worked with the publication before or at least to have a strong enough portfolio to demonstrate that you have the ability to pull your idea off well. 

If we look beyond the ideal of getting consistent work with publications, there's the work which acts as the bread and butter that will allow you to pursue the work that you're really interested in doing. I have friends who get by with corporate clients, either shooting events or portraits for them. There are others who shoot weddings (not to say that those who are specialised are not specialised for a reason but a documentary photographer is often a good alternative for a couple who don't have the budget for a full-time wedding shooter).

There's also the NGO's who can be great to shoot for because they will ask you to go to places and into scenarios where you'd want to be shooting anyway. Because of the large numbers of donors they have they can afford to pay well too. The problem you may have with these organisations is that they're only really interested in you shooting for them if you're already out in the region that they have projects going on. These guys get a lot of enquiries from photographers offering their services to shoot in Africa or South America etc. when the photographer in question might be based in Europe. They still have a budget to keep in mind and it's a lot cheaper for them to find a local to shoot.

So that's a decent start to understanding the financial side of the business. I will delve into some of these points in more detail in individual posts so keep an eye out. As for those who are just curious about what I'm up to, apologies for the fairly tedious post. This is information that I would have killed for a few years ago yet somehow it just isn't anywhere to be found in black and white.