On Friday, November 2, I had the pleasure of contributing to one of the events at this year’s National Photography Symposium at MediaCity in Salford, which looked at the future of working in the photography industry. The NPS is a biennial event run by the Redeye photography network. Below is a transcript of my talk:
Can I start by issuing a spoiler alert?
I’m sure you are not alone in thinking you don’t want to hear from another white, middle-aged man on the subject of photography. Well, the good news, is nor do I.
Therefore, I thought I’d do an impersonation.
More accurately, I thought I’d wind the clock back thirty years to 1988, to where it all began for me, and speak to you as if I was that 24-year-old, fresh from securing his first-ever assignment on a local newspaper in Edinburgh, and express my hopes, fears and dreams about my future as – hopefully – a professional photographer.
You see, so much has changed in those three decades since I innocently and carefully loaded a spool of black-and-white film into my non-motorised, non-autofocus, non-electronic Nikon FM2. But, in many ways, so much has stayed the same and so much still needs to change.
I look back at my 24-year-old self and wonder: how and where did he acquire the skills necessary to become a walking, mechanised, computer-literate, one-person media centre, capable of disseminating visual, audio and written content across the globe from the comfort and safety of an iPhone? Who would teach this novice snapper what it would take to be at the frontline of photojournalism, witnessing many great and significant political and social events?
Where would the money come from to finance the constant upgrading, upscaling and uploading?
The answer was: on the job. Looking, listening, learning. A true autodidact, but with influences stretching back to the invention of photography itself.
Mr Deguerre, I salute you and I will buy you a drink when we are together in the big darkroom in the sky. You gifted the world the prize of alchemy, turning one’s imagination into a solid state, with a bit of glass, a sheet of paper and some chemicals.
So it’s 1998. What are those hopes, fears and dreams? What does the future look like and what is my plan to get myself seen and heard. What can I expect of the world of photography? And how can I make sense of it enough to pursue the idea of a career – surviving – making a living.
For starters, I want a fair crack of the whip. While I don’t expect doors to be held open for me, I would like to think if I knocked hard enough, there would be a response. I’m looking for the people who wield the power, who call the shots and make the decisions. Who are they, what do they look like and where can I find them?
The options are limited. This is 1988, after all. There are so few photography courses in this country and the ones that exist are difficult to get into, over-subscribed and therefore able to cream off the best students to fill the places. And there are so few photographers, certainly not many like me, with a passion and a hunger to make it as a professional. To get out on the streets every day, to play with the light, find interesting people and places, tell stories using my camera. Anyone you meet with a camera is either a bird watcher or a train spotter. Or my dad with that funny little camera which only comes out when we go on holiday. To Filey.
Meeting other photographers is really difficult too: I could join a camera club and hang out with all those old men who are hung up on technicals and techniques. Bit I’m a punk rocker and they probably wouldn’t even let me in that posh-looking building where they have their meetings and show pictures of old boats. And sunsets. And children in the playground. Dodgy, most of them, I reckon.
The local art gallery sometimes puts on photography shows, but these are so infrequent that they are almost invisible. And none of the work is relevant to me. To my life. To where I live and what I see every day. I could keep sending my photos to newspapers in the hope that they would like them. I did that a couple of times. I got this really cool picture of a bunch of nuns running for the bus. I developed the film the following day and then made a really nice print in my darkroom (well, it’s actually the spare downstairs toilet. Which is ok to use as long as my brother doesn’t need a pee and open the door and ruin another precious sheet of photo paper.)
So I made this lovely print and found a hard-backed envelope and sent it to our evening newspaper. But they didn’t print it. Maybe I should have used a first-class stamp? More expensive than second class, but worth it. At least it would have got there a day earlier.
But even doing that seems daunting: just finding out whose in charge at the newspaper is nearly impossible. Phone calls go unanswered and I never get a response to the letters I write to them.
So I get a bit frustrated. And I think to myself: Bollocko, I’ll do it myself. I’ll show them. So I put on this little exhibition, in a church hall near where I live and got my mate Barry to design a poster which we photocopied and stuck up all over the town. And guess what? A few people actually came. And they liked it. They even wrote some nice things in the visitor’s book.
Well, not all of them did. Barry’s brother said it was shit and that I should have had more pictures with girls without their tops on, like in the Sun, because that’s what real photography is.
And everyone I come across is, well, so old. And they are all men. And posh. And busy. And important. There don’t seem to be many women in photography. And I certainly haven’t met anyone who isn’t white. But I guess that’s not my problem. All I want is a lucky break, something to go my way, get my career off the ground.
If it is up to me, photography will be different in the future. Imagine what it will be like way in the future, 30 years from now. Because in 2018, I reckon everything will be different.
There will be equal numbers of men and woman photographers. There will be a project called 325 Voices, where 325 women photographers will each make a portrait of each of the 325 women MPs at Westminster.
There will be people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, and they will be visible and prominent in the institutions and organisations which represent photography and who represent them. And people of all of abilities in charge.
In 2018, people whose passion is photography but who don’t want to study, or can’t because they cannot afford it, or they are caring for a relative, can have their voices heard, their work seen and their experiences validated.
In 2018 it will not matter whether you have a degree in photography but whether your voice and work are authentic, honest and valuable.
Studying photography will be brilliant though, because there will be literally dozens of courses, all over the country, and you’ll be able to learn about so many different types of photographic practice.
And there will be hundreds of jobs to choose from when you graduate, and you’ll have an equal chance to get employment no matter what your social or ethnic background.
And big companies and powerful media corporations will all respect your rights, your intellectual rights, your copyright because this year, the prime minister Mrs Thatcher actually did the only good thing she ever did and brought in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, which enshrines our rights and protects us from voracious and greedy people trying to make money out of our skill and hard work.
In 2018, our world view will be seen from different angles and perspectives, and not just narrated through the press and media by people from narrow backgrounds, with vested interests who retain the power and the processes by which photography is funded and viewed.
Male, pale and stale people will have an equal voice alongside everyone else.
In 2018, we will live in politically enlightened times:
There’s no way the most celebrated and influential photography magazine in the world could illustrate the issue of who owns land with an image of an heroic, white cowboy.
There’s no way one of the world’s most influential newspapers could publish a picture of a starving black child on its front page to elicit sympathy and the notion of the white saviour.
There’s no way the four main prize winners in a national portrait competition will be white people presenting images of black people.
There’s no way an image of a stone-throwing protestor will be elevated to Art and discussed in terms which would embarrass great Dutch and Italian masters of the past.
And there’s no way a long-lens image of bikini-clad women reclining on a beach, won’t be seen as objectification, an example of unconscious everyday sexism, whether or not it’s taken by a middle aged man as art.
Because in 2018 none of those things will happen and if they did it would just show that we still have a long, long way to go to break down the barriers, storm the citadel and make photography truly democratic, representative, honest, enlightened and collaborative.
I believe that in 2018 photography will still exist in its vacuum: somewhere between entertainment, art and journalism. Whatever your practice, whatever your outcomes, it will still be a profession or pursuit where you will rely on your own ability, determination and skill as well as the support, cooperation and encouragement of others for your success.
That will mean that photographers and photography will have to continue to act as chroniclers, witnesses and creators, to make their work. But they will also have to continue to be agitators, campaigners, agents of change in order to create and sustain new, transparent and trustworthy power structures which are open and accessible to all.
So my advice to all 24-year-olds in 2018, starting out on your journey in the wondrous world of photography is to question and challenge everything. Be disruptors. Respect yes. But do not stay silent or kowtow. Don’t accept that things cannot change. Recognise and praise progress. Call out wrongdoing and bad practice when you see it.
Photography was, is and always will be about rebellion, insurrection and revolution, after all.
And as the song goes: the revolution will not be televised.
But it sure as hell will be photographed.
Photograph © Craig Easton, 2018.