"So what do you do?"
I would like to say that when this question arises, I am completely confident and proud to admit that I am a photographer. Sadly, things just ain't that simple. I suppose it is a stereotype that has always lingered, but for some reason being an artist just keeps getting harder. I am proud of what I do, but trying to explain that to someone who perhaps doesn't completely 'grasp' art is hard. Extremely hard.
Going around a table full of new people and hearing professions like a nurse, engineer, law student being blurted out only makes it that little bit tougher. After all, in my honest opinion, art's importance in today's world and society seems to almost have been forgotten. Of course, I say this in haste. Art hasn't been completely forgotten, it has just taken a back-seat role.
Today, I feel art is more important than ever. In a world so full of anger, art can truly bring us together. A universal language that does not judge by the colour of your skin, or the life you have chosen to live. A beautiful way of bonding us and speaking to us, showing us love and passion rather than hate and sadness. Art can be read by everyone, from any country and any background. It can tell stories of happiness or open our eyes to things that are happening in this world that we may otherwise have never known. Art could, in a way, change the world.
Any kind of art takes time, skill and devotion. From painting to tattooing, there are skills required in every field that many people seem to dismiss. Art is not easy. During school, I remember being asked by a particular teacher (who I will openly say was was a total w***er), 'What are you actually going to do with photography though, Jenny?'. This wasn't the first time he had made comments like these. At every chance, he would refer to any sort of artistic study as the easy way out or something that only dumb 'drop-outs' would do. Sadly I know that this opinion is not uncommon. People I am close with have even compared their studies to mine, complaining about how much work they had to do and 'wishing their course was easy like mine'. Sure, for someone who does not study something like photography, it might seem like I have it easy. No exams and few class tests - SIMPLE. Well, it isn't. During my three years of studying photography at a college level, the workload was immense. I enjoyed every second of it which made it easier but at times it was enough to make me cry. We DO have to write essays, and we may not all have to sit exams, but we have hand ins among a long list of other commitments. Huge physical A3 workbooks filled to the brim with research, discussion, and ideas. Long hours in the darkroom developing film and printing in painfully dim red lights. My final years saw me spending almost every day writing and researching from the early hours to...well the early hours! Unlike many courses, a lot of our work was completely self-guided. We had to come up with things alone and commit to ideas, then gain approval from a lecturer. Out shooting every second day, organizing photo-shoots with strangers, gaining permission to photograph buildings, editing for days, the list goes on. By no means am I taking away the effort and skill that goes into any other form study but we all have to work hard to get somewhere. Even artists.
After studying, chances are to make it in your field, you are going to have to work your ass off just to make ends meet. As a photographer, I have never completely given up my part-time job to work solely freelance, but people I know who have really do not get a break. I specialize in fine-art and to make any money from photography I would generally have to focus more on a field that I do not enjoy, something that people need and want; like weddings or family portraiture. Getting somewhere in your field requires hard work every day, even if it means doing something you hate.
My work takes time and thought. When I am working on a project or even just taking some random photos I go through a process. Each image I take, I take carefully. I work completely manual considering light, composition, subjects, framing for every shot. Each piece takes time. I do not simply click away, slap them onto facebook and hope for the best. For projects, I spend a long time doing my research physically. Planning, sketching, weighing up options, deciding on my equipment, where I will be shooting, etc. My intention is the create something new and exciting, something I can be proud of. This takes time and passion. I want to be able to put all of myself into my work, not just rush it for the sake of it.
"Wow, you must have an awesome camera!"
Okay, fair enough. My camera is pretty good, but it is far from a top of the range SLR. In fact, you can buy it on Amazon for about £200. Every lens I own was less than that, and most were under £100. It isn't all about the kit, it is what you can do with it. This is perhaps something that irritates me most about peoples outlook of photography. Picture this. Your car has broken down, it's completely frazzled, but it is fixable. You go to an awesome mechanic and he has it ready to drive away by the end of the day. How? Because he has the most expensive screwdrivers and tools on the market? Highly unlikely. It isn't just about the tools an artist uses. It is the artists themselves who create something new and exciting. There are a lot of things to learn in photography (and every other art form). How to compose your images correctly, working on exposure and manual settings, lighting, developing your own film. It isn't a case of just 'clicking the button'.
For someone who does not know the technical side of photography, I can (kind of) understand this misconception. Frankly, though, I find it a tad insulting. If you have the most expensive gear on the block, you are not necessarily the best photographer. Good kit helps, but it does not make you a professional. A full frame camera will give you better quality images with higher resolution much like more expensive paint would give a better finish to a painting, but having fancy equipment is not the key to creating great work.
No, you can't have your whole photo-shoot on a USB for no charge. This is my livelihood! People do not appreciate the time you put into every single piece, they just want it for free. We all have to make a living, but unfortunately for artists, some people simply don't seem to understand why that particular painting is £200. Let me put things into perspective, putting aside the fact that I may have spent days, weeks, months or years getting the perfect photograph of something. Let's talk about the actual costs of everything else. Time is a huge factor. Once you have your piece, you may spend hours/days (or longer) editing it to your desired specifications. You don't get paid for this, so adding on a 'labour' cost to your final piece is pretty standard. Next is the printing costs. Prints can be as little as 5p, but when I am printing for resale purposes I always use the best printer I can. Depending on paper type and sizing you can be looking at pretty high double figures. On top of printing, you have your mounting and framing. This is where things can get expensive. Unless you are going budget, and your print is a standard size, then mounting framing can be well over £50, and that would be the cheap end of things. Next, you have to physically frame things up, as a perfectionist this in itself can take time. Oh and finally, finding a platform to actually sell your work. Unless you are lucky enough to have great connections then you are (more than likely) looking at a pretty hefty commission deducted from the final amount after a sale. That is if you sell it. And of course, if you find a gallery that has space. As a newbie artist, finding a gallery that will take you on can be the hardest part. And if you do strike lucky, you may be on a waiting list, which can be pretty lengthy. So yeah, there is a lot to think about when you are pricing up your work. It isn't just a case of thinking, 'I need £500 for that new pair of shoes'.
We are skilled labourers. YOU NEED US. It might be hard to believe, but without art, the world would be a very different place. Advertising probably wouldn't exist, or at least it would be extremely boring if it did. That new jacket you want to buy online? You wouldn't have a clue what it even looked like without a photographer. The fun illustrations in children's books would be gone, and what fun is the text without some drawings. We rely on art to illustrate the things we want, the things we need. Art influences us. It changes our ideas, our perceptions, the things we buy. We need professional artists.
We have dry spells, and it sucks. It is damn near impossible to have a constant flow of awesome inspiration for new work. I suppose every artist goes through this stage in their work, often more than once a year. It is infuriating, particularly if you are relying on your work to live. There isn't much you can do to solve this issue, just try and gain inspiration from things around you until a new idea hits you. I guess that's all part of the 'being an artist' package, it ain't always consistent.
I guess what I am trying to say is it is demoralizing. Mentally it can destroy you. In a world where people take photos of everything on their iPhones, and people rip off artists work without a second thought it is hard to maintain the drive to keep working. After all, what are you working for if your ideas are ridiculed or stolen? Art is amazing, the community, the knowledge, and the history. It is something that has pulled us together for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Something to be enjoyed by everyone from all over the world. We cannot let it die.
Thankfully there are still many people who continue to be inspired, and of course, many people who are supportive of the cause.
Through all the shitty things that have put me down as an artist, the disapproving opinions and off comments, I am still insanely proud of what I do.
I am proud to tell people I am an artist.
I am proud to be a photographer.
Art isn't dead yet.
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