Q&A: The Pool Collective
The POOL Collective was founded by photographers Sean Izzard and Simon Harsent 12 years ago. Capture got the opportunity to find out what makes this collective such a success story for its members, both commercially and creatively.
Based in Sydney, The POOL Collective now looks after a total of eight interdisciplinary photographers working across a variety of specialisation and genres, including motion. Backed by a full-time production team and Managing Director Cameron Gray, POOL also operates as a traditional collective with a focus on personal projects and working to support each other – something that’s been part of the way things have been done from the outset.
What were the driving motivations behind the formation of The POOL Collective?
Sean Izzard: I had been entertaining the idea of creating a kind of ‘drop-in’ centre for photographers at my studio. Like many other photographers that spend most of their time alone in their spaces, I was keenly aware of the value that comes from getting together to share ideas and projects; it’s where the juice is.
Simon, who was living in NYC at the time and unhappy with his representation in Australia said, “You should start a production company”. Most production company and photo agencies are run to make a profit for the owners, which is fine. But along with that comes a number of things which aren’t necessarily in the best interests of the photographers represented.
I realised that with a full-time producer and two photographers already based from my studio I had pretty much what I need already in place to get the ball rolling. Combined with the other ‘drop-in’ idea, Simon’s idea started to make sense. Hence POOL was born, based on the tenets of sharing, motivating, supporting, and creating. Plus, we dropped all of the things we didn’t like about the traditional repping agencies. We just needed a name – and we had a pool. Perfect...
Simon Harsent: I think one of the driving factors was disappointment with how photographers were being represented, not just in a commercial way but also in the way photographers interacted with each other.
Sean and I wanted to set up a space for photographers to contribute to each other, share ideas and knowledge, somewhere that provided creative interaction where we could feed off each other’s enthusiasm.
Tell us a little about The POOL Grant and why you started it?
Simon Harsent: The Grant was one of the first things we decided to do when the collective began. It was born out of wanting to help photographers who were at the beginning of their career.
Sean and I met each other in our very early twenties and we just had to navigate our own way. Our decision to offer the grant came at a time when there really weren’t initiatives like this around and we saw the need to help emerging photographers at a critical part of their career. The Grant isn’t just about the work that is produced, although that is a major part of it. It’s also about giving photographers who are starting out access to our combined knowledge about all aspects of finding your voice as a photographer and, of course, developing a body of work and exhibiting it.
For us, it’s rewarding; seeing the enthusiasm that someone starting out has really does give one a reality check as to how lucky you are to do what you do. I personally find when I mentor someone, I get so much out of it myself.
Given the very challenging year that 2020 was, how have you managed to remain creative and productive?
Sean Izzard: From the production company point of view, it’s been a really important opportunity for us to take stock of what we are doing. We have been able to improve and develop many aspects of the business, including our production systems, website, and social media channels.
I believe strongly in the notion of the ’time out’ from a personal career standpoint. We all should take a step back from time to time to ask questions like, ‘What am I doing here?’, ‘Am I happy here?’, ‘What else do I want to do?’. This pandemic was really an enforced time out. Other than that, we always have personal projects on the go, both as a larger group and individually. It’s kind of expected in this company.
Simon Harsent: The support structure we have amongst the group was vital to us getting through everything that 2020 threw at us. It been tough not only as a collective, but as individuals as well. The support has been incredible for me, especially after the flood at my studio earlier in 2020. I’ve been so blessed to have the people around me I have and I think I speak the same for everyone. Being part of the POOL is being part of a family, knowing someone is there for you when shit hits the fan provides such a reassurance it helps you get through the tough times.
First and foremost, everyone at POOL is a photographer and in love with photography. We aren’t just commercial photographers, we all work on personal projects, so remaining creative isn’t an issue for most of us.
When things shut down in March, I was busier than ever with personal work. I actually had to ask myself how had I previously found the time to do paying work.
Christopher Ireland: As luck had it, I’d just finished fitting out a darkroom at home and have been prolific in shooting personal work and hand printing. A nice unexpected by-product of the lockdowns was our internal commitment at POOL to keep communicating regularly. This meant I was getting lots of feedback on the personal work I was shooting. Simon has been really helpful with my film work and because there is limited knowledge of the traditional craft, getting feedback from Sean and Simon has been particularly special. They’ve got a wealth of knowledge.
Juliet Taylor: Initially during lockdown, I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out and shoot. I would take the camera out every day in a bit of a manic state and shot some pretty bizarre work. After a while I realised that the whole world had slowed down and that it was OK to step back and recalibrate.
I started watching artist talks from around the world and speaking to the guys at POOL made me realise we were all going through the same thing; and that felt comforting.
I reached out to people on social media and connected with creatives. I also spent the time working on future ideas, looking back through history of photography and the work I really love to do.
Danny Eastwood: One thing this year delivered on is time – time out from some of the usual commitments and commercial considerations, and time to work on personal projects. Being able to work in the studio at the POOL Collective throughout the year has been an incredible privilege and it has been particularly productive period. The spare time allowed me to be creative and focus on personal work, and being creative helped me cope better with all that extra time.
What role do you see personal projects taking in the development of your photography, and how has being in a collective had an impact on this?
Sean Izzard: It’s always been that personal projects are the driving force behind my career. In other words, I am a photographer foremost, and shooting commercially is my job. What I’m doing now is what keeps me relevant, especially in this day and age where photography is so commonplace. At POOL, it’s kind of a given that we are all up to personal work. It’s been part of the DNA from the beginning, so we’re all onboard. As humans though, sometimes things may slip and this is where the collective kicks in. Literally. A kick up the backside is sometimes what support looks like.
Simon Harsent: I think that the development of personal projects is the strongest thing about everyone at the collective. Personal work is what pushes us all as individuals, and being able to share work is crucial to the development of the photographer and the work. Being part of the group is also a way of being accountable, and it means you can’t slack off if you say you are going to do something.
Christopher Ireland: It’s everything. Personal work is the bedrock of POOL – it really is the common driver that bonds us together. In the early days, I was tentative finding my voice, and found putting personal work in front of the group daunting and stressful. I had my arse kicked many times, but it was because the other artists took personal work so seriously. It’s much easier for me to share personal work now. I’ve become prolific in creating and finessing it. Commercial briefs tend to come and go, but the personal work is the compass. You tend to find a lot of complacency in relation to personal work in the industry, but POOL doesn’t accept it.
Juliet Taylor: I’m constantly developing ideas, collaborating, and shooting. It’s a constant evolution. POOL has always encouraged personal work by creating various group initiatives. We are currently working on a react and respond project where we collectively need to submit an image each month.
Danny Eastwood: Personal projects are where you can clearly define and develop your voice – the purpose and intent behind your work. Developing this, in an ongoing way, is the single most important aspect of any craft – it is the reason your work has meaning or impact. The POOL Collective has been intrinsic in nurturing the drive to create and share new work.
How can photographers, regardless of their area of specialisation, benefit from being in a collective?
Sean Izzard: Speaking from the POOL experience, we set out to create a place for inspiration, motivation, and support. What we also created was a means to extend this into our commercial practice. Cameron Gray has been managing the show here as executive producer and is fully aligned with these principles. He’s probably the most creative of all of us. Together we also create the group projects – the vehicles for our personal work.
Christopher Ireland: Being in the collective allows you to gain perspective. Seeing what seven other artists do, what they succeed with and struggle with provides a panoramic view of the industry. Also, when other members of the collective have a different specialisation, their input broadens your approach, precisely because the knowledge differs slightly. Specialisation adds dynamic facets to the whole. Sometimes you’re doing great work, but not really knowing it. Others in the collective offer a sounding board and can boost morale and give you validation.
Juliet Taylor: We share a culture at POOL where we can discuss ideas, support, encourage, motivate, share. We are all individual and unique in the work that we do, but have similar common interests and values. I think it’s important to be aligned creatively as well as aligned in character.
Danny Eastwood: The POOL Collective is made up of a diverse range of artists, but the commonality we all share is the dedication to push ourselves and the aim of producing extraordinary work. As creatives, we naturally draw on a broad range of influences, so the actual makeup of the group is less important than the willingness to share and participate.
How has your photography practice changed and developed as a result of being in a collective? And how has it impacted your business and the work you produce?
Sean Izzard: Only a couple of years back I found that my commercial work had become so different to my personal work, and I wanted to bridge that gap. I wasn’t really enjoying shooting 10-part comps that would be put together in post production for ads any more. It’s something that Simon and a couple of the others had pointed out in passing, and it had sat with me. This is one of the aspects of being in a collective. We are still competitive, but we drive each other to be better. The upshot is that I have totally repositioned myself as a photographer, choosing to shoot stories now, rather than just one-off ads. It’s more who I am, and it’s way more fulfilling.
Further to that, before POOL I hadn’t had a solo photographic exhibition. I’ve now had a few and been involved in countless group shows. This was one of my aims – to shift the focus from being so commercially driven to getting back in touch with photography.
Simon Harsent: On the commercial side, the way we have structured it and with the people we have, like Cam, it has enabled a few of us to make the transformation into getting film commissions. I think the main thing here would be how it has allowed us to move with the commercial work at a time when things and client expectations are changing all the time.
Christopher Ireland: I’ve changed a great deal. I’d say the biggest change is in my ambitions. Prior to joining POOL, I suppose I was happy being a successful ad shooter. But a career can be so much more diverse than this. There’s a real sense at POOL that a career is more encompassing. Now, I think of my work more in terms of the legacy I leave, or the contributions I can make to the discipline of photography. Cam also really challenged me to try directing, and we made a film together.
Daily, I now have a routine which is very strongly based around shooting, processing, and printing. Short term, my business is probably inhibited by my unwillingness to sit at a desk and send e-mails, but long-term I’m building something I can be proud of, and it shapes the way I see. Working to this rhythm also energises me strongly.
Danny Eastwood: At the core of the POOL Collective has been the dedication to produce personal work and projects. The importance of personal work cannot be overstated, and to be part of a group that nurtures and supports this process is equally invaluable. The personal work we produce defines us as artists and it is how we differentiate ourselves, and this allows us to distinguish ourselves in a crowded market place.
What skills do you see as fundamental to photographers running a successful practice, and how has this changed as a result of the pandemic, and from a decade ago?
Sean Izzard: In terms of skills, of course you need to be a good shooter, but that was never all you needed to run a business. I’ve seen many people with a great eye not be able to cope with the rigours of business. It also comes down to networking, what you're like under pressure, and mathematics.
I see that today photography is probably way more competitive at the bottom end, and therefore harder to break into. Having said that, there has never been an age more visually literate, so the opportunities are still there. One thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the amount of shit that is out there, so if you’re good, you’ll still stand out. The waters are muddied by the number of avenues available to marketers and advertisers, and there’s a lot of undercutting going on, but like I said, mostly at the bottom end. In terms of the pandemic, like a good brush fire, it clears out some dead wood, and the strong will survive.
Simon Harsent: Commercially speaking, I think it’s still the same, I just think it’s a little harder now. It also depends on how you define a successful practice. If you are just judging in dollars and cents and success to you is making millions, get another job! But if you judge it based on you enjoying what you do and it enables you to live a life doing what you love, and pay your bills, then you will always have a successful practice. But like everything in life, the key lies in perseverance and integrity.
Christopher Ireland: To run a successful practice, you need a lasting store of enthusiasm. This shouldn’t be underestimated, so I’d suggest tweaking with your lifestyle until this can be done. I’ve been with POOL for 10 years and finding a vein of enthusiasm to tap into has taken time and trial and error. This is more important now, because 10 years ago you could coast more, commercially, and stay viable, and even thrive financially. Now, everyone can publish their work, so the sea of voices seems larger than ever. If you stop for a moment, you can very quickly lose visibility. One nice thing about COVID-19 is that the industry largely took some time off, so there was some relief from that constant pressure to be seen and heard. It’s also simultaneously asked us all to reflect on life, and what is important. I feel I move with more purpose than ever, and I’d say some of that came down to the pandemic.
Other than enthusiasm, I’d say you need to be a clear and assertive communicator. Persistence is necessary, and having a strong sense of self-belief makes it easier to be properly paid.
What are the advantages to collective members of having a full-time production and marketing team providing support?
Sean Izzard: Our support team is second to none. From Cam and Hannah [Nixon], right throughout, everyone is committed to what POOL stands for. Hannah knows us and our work better than we know it ourselves. They can point us in the direction of new opportunities. They are also extremely creative individuals; they help drive us in our personal projects and together provide another level of inspiration to us all.
Simon Harsent: It means you know them and they know you. It might sound simple, but a lot of what we do is about relationships and having good ones is what produces great work.
Christopher Ireland: Advantages of full-time production is that you develop a synergy with this team of people, and together you form a rhythm for how you work effectively. Hannah and I worked through some big jobs recently, and she knows, sometimes better than I, what environments I thrive in to create my best work. This can be invaluable when working on high-pressure shoots where your style can be all too easily buried under the weight of the commission. The production department know us instinctively, and they work incredibly hard. I also encourage their input as often as possible, unleashing their creative flair. They provide a sensible sounding board for personal projects, and want to facilitate book deals and exhibitions. When this is multiplied by the collective, that’s a lot of support for a lot of people.
What do you view as the greatest opportunities and threats for professional photographers?
Sean Izzard: All the new media is visual, so opportunities for image makers have never been better. Navigating a course is the challenge. It’s exciting.
Simon Harsent: I don’t think there are any threats to photography as an art form. I don’t think it’s ever been stronger; you only have to look at the number of photography books being published right now. Commercially, technology will continue to change it, not only how we create it, but also how we consume it, so there are opportunities there, but a lot of them lie in the world of the unknown, so from that point of view it’s about embracing new things as the come to you. As Bruce Lee said, “Be like water”.
Christopher Ireland: I’ll start with the greatest threats I see. For me, it’s the ocean of work we have instant access to. Our knowledge of the work of others used to be more limited physically to work seen in print. Along with that limited knowledge was some sense, even if ultimately naive, that our work was good and that we were on track. Now the sea appears far, far bigger. We instantly see what has taken lifetimes to create and this can be daunting, or even paralysing. Some naivety is actually useful at times, because it allows us to keep our head down and create what we think to be unique and powerful work. For this reason, I’ve stopped using social media.
In terms of opportunities, I’d say it’s the shared knowledge we can access. The peer-to-peer knowledge sharing via platforms like YouTube has made educational barriers much lower. I’ve learnt a great deal about darkroom printing this way. My suggestion is a good balance between seeing what others are up to and having a robust knowledge of our art form’s history, and keeping the head down to make work that personally resonates and satisfies.
Juliet Taylor: I think that we are the biggest threat to ourselves. Spending too much time on social media can be dangerous. Avoid comparing yourself to others and following trends; just listen to your instinct and remain true to yourself and this should bring opportunity.
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