Living the dream - the reality of going pro
Hollywood is saturated with clichéd notions of what it’s like to be a professional photographer. Couple that with the glossy facade of social media, and the prospect of being a career shooter has spurred a constant flow of aspiring professionals. But what is life really like for an Associated Press stringer? A self-funded documentarian? Or a high-end fashionista? Sam Edmonds spoke with a cross-section of professionals to find out if the photographer’s dream is in fact a reality.
Say the word photojournalist to most people and it will probably conjure up images of an olive-green shoulder bag, a pair of Leicas hanging under a well-used scarf, and an outfit of earthy tones draped over a young individual with big publications hot on their heels. It’s characters like Maddy Bowen in Blood Diamond or Sean O’ Connell in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that perpetuate this ideal and who undoubtedly become the catalyst for a wave of young people’s foray into photography. But skip to the reality of a working freelance photojournalist and the scene is noticeably different. As with any genre within the craft, the challenges of making a career from photography often mean that what might have once seemed like a dream job is a little more sobering than expected. However, from photojournalism to advertising, fashion and editorial, the industry undoubtedly has its perks as well. And while it may not resemble the jet-setting lifestyle of a Jennifer Connelly character, the opportunity to make a living with a camera is certainly a privilege.
Much like many genres of the craft, advertising photography is known more for its glossy sheen than for the logistical and technical maelstroms that support it. Ironically, this stereotype is perhaps perpetuated by advertising images themselves as striking, elaborate photographs created for opulent clients produce a perception of lucrativeness to the industry. But like most other genres, advertising photographers face the same difficulties in both finding work and establishing themselves within a market. Most new to the industry take the apprentice-like route of assisting, but as Sydney-based professional Danny Eastwood experienced, even the more structured routes into this career path are a rocky road. “I spent years working as an assistant for some of the best advertising photographers in Australia,” he says. “But making the transition from assisting to shooting, you’ll discover there is a lot more responsibility – it is something you witness as an assistant, but don’t actually comprehend. And there is also the financial risk – you go from making a pretty consistent living to a very erratic one.” On top of this, Eastwood points to the very definition of “established” in advertising photography as standing on shaky ground. Like in any creative endeavour, it’s the ability to adapt to a constantly changing and evolving medium that is the premise for creative success. But furthering the Darwinian rule, in an extremely competitive industry such as advertising, staying afloat also boils down to survival of the most social. “I’ve never considered myself an ‘established’ photographer – I’m not sure how you’d even define that,” says Eastwood. “I think you need to be constantly re-establishing yourself – you need to be constantly creating new work, meeting new people, and finding new ways to get yourself and your work out there.”
It’s here that Eastwood seems to point to a clash between logistics and creativity underlining the genre. While the importance of refining and maintaining an aesthetic that is unique to the photographer is axiomatic to success, an immense amount of time is also required for administrative, and organisational and technical tasks. “The better you define what you and your imagery is about, the easier you will find your path,” says Eastwood. “Your work needs to speak to people, and the clearer you are about who and what you are, the better your work will be. But you have to remember that shooting is only a portion of what the job entails – I’m not sure I know any photographers who enjoy maintaining their website or doing their invoicing or tax.”
Although this may ring true for photographers of most genres, it would seem that advertising suffers most from the need to be both creative and tech and business savvy. A solution to which, as the New Zealand-born advertising specialist suggests, might lie in the fact that when it boils down to it, all photographers are in the same boat. “Look for support amongst your peers. The practice of photography itself is a fairly solitary one so it is important to have people you can share and collaborate with,” Eastwood says. “I was lucky to have some great relationships with the people I’d worked for as an assistant and they gave me a huge amount of support. Being able to ask advice and borrow gear was essential.”
Coming into Fashion
While the sports car-esque exterior of advertising photography glistens like the products it’s selling, the image of fashion photography has been perpetually informed by Hollywood stereotypes and the fame of notorious practitioners from Terry Richardson to the great Richard Avedon. Seemingly the biggest influence upon emerging talents in this field is the enshrining of its greats, and unlike advertising or editorial photography where the playing field is somewhat level, fashion photography, like photojournalism, is guilty of deifying a select few. Even for the industry’s uber-talented emerging photographers, the road to the cover of Vanity Fair is incredibly long, scarily narrow, and littered with the beauty dishes and scrims of those before them.
Although Australia is no stranger to fashion, Sydney and Melbourne’s sheer distance to Milan and Paris make the road especially long. “Australia is one of the best places live on this planet – but it’s also a small market compared to Europe and the US,” says Sydney-based photographer, Henryk Lobaczewski. “International fashion photographers and the top tier of our craft can legitimately earn millions. Prices in Australia can come down as there is always competition in a small market, but if you have a unique voice with your work, the more likely you are to cut through.” Born and raised in Brisbane, Lobaczewski admits that while the Australian market is small, practicing here can have a large effect on one’s style as the country’s geographic isolation from the rest of the world forges a unique visual approach and aesthetic, and this makes the need to maintain a distinctive approach even more important.
Engaged in Business
Wedding photography represents a facet of the industry that is aimed at by amateurs for several reasons. While perhaps not as glamorous as fashion photographers nor as gritty as documentarians, wedding photographers are often envied for their seemingly lucrative business models that also allow for freedom and creativity. From the outside, a quote of $8,000 for a day of photographs seems like a treasure trove for those willing to invest in a DSLR, a few lenses, and a Squarespace subscription. And even more so to those creative late teens that received all this for last Christmas. But for professionals, the skill set required to maintain a company shooting 30 – 50 big days a year extends well beyond the viewfinder of a camera and well into the business and entrepreneurial realm of freelancing.
As one half of Surry Hills-based wedding powerhouse, Inlighten Photography, Dean Bentick is no stranger to the delicate balance between being a creative professional and a businessperson. Having started his business with partner, Rachael in 2002, Bentick’s practice now represents one of the most formidable wedding photo outlets in the country. But as he describes, the process from enthusiast to professional took the form of photographer first, then entrepreneur. “I think the best way to start out is to try and get a foot in the door with an established studio or photographer, learn from them, and ask about their mistakes and take it on board,” says Bentick. “Racing out and starting your own business is a huge mistake, in my opinion. You are still learning photography and you need to make sure you have that mastered before starting the business part.”
In addition to a word of warning before jumping in the deep end with a business venture, Bentick posits the importance of questioning whether a business-like career is what most photographers are really seeking. For him, his passion for photography was met equally with a passion for keeping the cogs turning in the background. “I personally only shoot weddings for about 50 days of the year. The rest of the time I am talking with clients, attending to IT issues, and general day-to-day things of running a business,” he says. “I love photography, but I love business too. If you’re not keen on the business side of things, then I strongly suggest you consider working for a studio and leave the business stuff to them.” Furthermore, the idea of shooting weddings as an incredibly profitable venture is probably somewhat reinforced by costs to the photographer that are somewhat invisible to the outside world. After a day of shooting, stack up the costs of gear itself, gear maintenance, assistants, editors, second shooters, transport, websites, and insurance, and that $8,000 diminishes pretty quickly. “I recently updated our camera, building, and workers’ comp insurance which totalled $5,500 for the year,” says Bentick. “Costs like this become higher and higher as you start to build your business.” After taking this into account, much like other genres within the industry, Bentick points to the misconceptions surrounding the ability of the medium to provide a big income, and instead highlights the positive aspects of a practice that come part and parcel with a job that isn’t necessarily tethered to a desk. “I think the rewards come from flexibility in your job and getting to experience new adventures all the time,” he says. “But I think most photographers would agree that just doing this alone will not make you a millionaire!”
A Personal Pursuit
In many ways, the terms “career” and “documentary photographer” are idiosyncratic. While the age of Netflix and iTunes has spurred a steady demand for documentary film-making, long-term slow journalism in photography has remained a field for those dedicated to their cause and those prepared to weather the cost of funding projects themselves. For up-and-coming Australian photographer John Feely, recent successes exhibiting in Sydney and his addition to Australia’s premier photo collective, Oculi have been a strong boost in the right direction, but as the Mongolia-based practitioner says, success in the documentary world still seems to be based solely on commitment and passion, and may be defined by something other than financial gain. “Being invited to be a part of Oculi in 2016 was obviously a huge boost. It creates opportunities and makes people take your work more seriously,” he says. “As far as gaining traction in the industry goes… I do know that it is becoming increasingly difficult if you don’t have a voice, or something to communicate beyond photography. All the great projects that have inspired me and launched people’s careers seem to be very personal, and done over a number of years.”
Feely’s most celebrated project, The Outsider is no exception to this. Photographed over an extended period in the depths of Mongolia’s mountainous landscape, the series affords viewers a glimpse into scenes adorned with snow-capped peaks and tamed eagles in a unique blend of travel and documentary photography. But as Feely describes, it is The Outsider’s tacit admission of alienation that draws so much attention to the nature of documentary. At once, the series speaks of an exotic and unfamiliar land, but also of the ephemeral presence of the photographer. “I am eternally the least qualified to construct a narrative or tell a story about a place when I am the visitor,” says Feely. “What I try to communicate is how transformative it is to share the experiences that exist between me and the people I stay with.” It’s in this way that Feely draws attention to the line between personal pursuit and a career in documentary.
While most might like to perceive the documentary role as a camera-wielding social justice advocate, the impetus is often much more personal because jumping from grant to grant to complete a decade’s worth of work far from the shores of home takes a more than healthy dose of both passion and commitment. “It always takes a lot of time and effort to keep a project like this going, and in many ways, doing something like this is a life choice because it impacts so heavily on what you can and can’t do in the rest of your life,” says Feely. “Look at what you are interested in communicating through your photography. Sure, practice the craft, but what you bring to the form of photography is what will define you. I keep getting told that it is the one thing you have been passionate about your whole life and maybe not even known it. I believe this is true.”
For Australian photographer Natalie Grono, a career in photojournalism moulded by motherhood and a flare for personal documentary has spurred an intense knowledge of the relationship between professional practice, family life, and dedication to the craft. After years working as a photojournalist for newspapers including the Newcastle Herald, and since the birth of two children, Grono now wears many hats as a photographer to supplement her income, with work spanning genres from news and editorial, fashion look books, and portraiture, but her personal work remains testament to a clash between career and passion as her poetic photographic narratives surrounding her children, as seen in the series, Sea Dreaming, seem at once to be the pinnacle of her photographic voice, yet also a distraction from a journalistic career. “In my experience, the newspapers I worked for were always male-dominated in the photo department. And now as a regional shooter, I don’t often meet female press shooters,” says Grono. “I guess there are lots of different reasons why there is a lack of gender equality, but one such reason could be the constrictions of raising children and pursuing stories afar; even my own work is limited to close to home so I can be with my children.”
But ultimately, Grono’s sentiment seems nothing but harmonious with that of Feely’s, and in some way, with that of photographers across all genres. While a spectrum of logistical, technical, and administrative hurdles face any practicing or prospective professional, and a fiercely competitive nature often combats our kind against one another in the fight for clients or funding, the common ground is that most who enter this profession do it for something other than simply a career. As Grono says: “It has to come from a deep curiosity about life and a love of the craft. It could be hard financially and logistically to cover projects, but persistence and passion is the key,” she says. “I believe that if you create from the right place, then your photographs will always find a way to the right audience in the end.”