'It will be good for your portfolio...'

I’ve spent the last 6 years battling with self-doubt, a lack of confidence, and compared myself to every photographer I follow on Instagram. I graduated from Sheffield Hallam University in 2013 with a BA Honours in Photography, an achievement that at the time meant the world to me, having spent the last year of that course crying, stressing and colour balancing until my eyes hurt and I doubted the colour of everything. Despite the stresses and the tears leaving was terrifying, more so than I ever thought it would be, due to the realisation that I couldn’t just spend my days in dark rooms printing or spending hours photographing shadows dance across my bedroom wall, it turns out you don’t get paid for doing that all day. I’ve spoken about my creative struggles before and I’ve felt like a broken record, however I’ve never shared some of the experiences I’ve had whilst seeking and applying for photographic work.

In my last year at university I was told it may be an option/ incredible experience if I applied for intern opportunities or for work as a studio assistant. This would be amazing to do and yes a fantastic opportunity if I was still living with my parents, however when I did leave university I had already moved away and was paying rent and bills. I couldn’t work for free, it wasn’t an option which immediately narrowed my opportunities to apply for creative roles. I browsed job sites daily, which may I add the search engines are INSANE. Search ‘photographer’ and unless you’re in London/a major city you’ll get ‘Talented night time photographers’ which basically means taking photographs of pissed up people on nights out and then upload them to their Facebook page the day after. I didn’t do a photography degree for that. I settled for a full time job in a café as an in between, I spent my days serving coffee and making bacon sandwiches. These days were hard. I struggled to find the strength and the interest after long days running around with plates of food and cleaning to then go home and try and find my way in the photography industry. I looked at other people from my course who had landed photography work, or who were successfully working for themselves and felt as if I had done it all wrong.

During these times I had waves of creativity, however I didn’t understand how to deal with them. Some mornings I’d wake up and want to photograph everything and everyone, however had to go to work and by the end of the day I’d have lost that energy. The winter months were and still are the hardest because of the lack of light, everything seemed to stop and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make the waves come back, and so I was in some sort of drought, there was nothing. Yet then the Spring would come and with that came the light, the daffodils and the new. I still revel in that now, it genuinely is my favorite time of year.

I spent a year working in the cafe and eventually applied for a job that was better paid at a University which filled me with hope and I was welcomed into an environment I was familiar with. I was grateful that my hair didn’t smell of bacon every day and that I could wear nail varnish again. The waves didn’t come back. Not for a long while. I spoke of my photography degree like it was a joke, and actually felt ashamed of it. The questions always came ‘so why are you working here?’ ‘why aren’t you a photographer then?’.

I spent the next six months getting to know my colleagues, who have turned out to be some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. I began to talk of my passions, I shared my past work, I showed them shadows on walls and they didn’t think I was weird. They told me that I needed to BE a photographer, they questioned what I was doing, they told me I was good enough and they encouraged me to take photographs again. I talked to people more, I was honest about my fears and the people around me learnt that it actually wasn’t as easy as leaving a secure full time job to become a high flying photographer.

Again I struggled with time. I struggled so much. I spent two hours a day on a bus getting to and from work, on top of 8 hours working. I wanted to create new work, I wanted to so badly but all I could physically manage at the end of the day was to put on my pyjamas and sleep.

You’d think that working in a university would be an incredible opportunity to seek employment within photography. During my first few weeks I had visited the art department. I met with a Photography lecturer who showed me the facilities, spoke about cameras for a bit and then told me that I wouldn’t be able to use any of the equipment or dark rooms. Using the facilities actually wasn’t why I’d wanted to engage with the Photography department, I’d offered my time to support students in putting together work for their degree shows, offered assistance with production wanting nothing in return, just to be surrounded by photography. I was made to feel like I was in the wrong and was told that there probably wouldn’t be any opportunities. This was extremely disheartening particularly at a time when my confidence had reached a new low.

Having worked in administration for about a year I still had a need to fulfil, I still craved that feeling that art and photography gave me and knew I couldn’t satisfy it within my current job role. Only now that I was on the verge of getting a mortgage I needed to make money from a creative job more than ever. Coming from a Fine Art background I researched commercial photography and felt sick. I was overwhelmed by the crispness of the images and how everything was so perfect. Coming from a traditional film background I had always encouraged and celebrated the imperfections of an image, which added to the style of my work. I used Photoshop as I’d use a dark room and had a very limited skill set when it came to digital processing. I started to watch YouTube videos and eventually didn’t feel as lost, slowly I had developed some basic Photoshop skills, I mean I was never going to airbrush the shit out of people anyway.

The style of how I photographed was beginning to change, I tried to fit into a commercial way of working and promoted a collection of images that I felt would seek paid work. I received messages ranging from people asking me to photograph their children to companies enquiring about photographing products. The conversations were always the same and my thought processes when reading them followed a similar pattern every time. I’d feel excited that someone had seen my work, I’d then freak out massively and try to figure out why they would want me to shoot for them when there were hundreds of other photographers they could choose, I’d look at the work featured on my website knowing they would have seen this and criticise it, I’d then think of excuses to get out of the work I’d been asked to do. This was my thought process every time I got a message. When I did eventually reply it would take me about two hours to draft a message and negotiate a price for my work and time that I thought was fair. I’d massively undersell myself, often by hundreds of pounds, so when people expected me to work for free and say things like ‘oh just bring your camera along to our event, it will be great for your portfolio, we’ll pop your images on our website’ I genuinely wanted to scream!

This line is quite possibly one of the most demoralising statements I have heard as a photographer and continue to hear from ‘clients’. There’s an assumption that if you have a camera you just love snapping away at anything for hours. I do love taking photographs, but I’d much rather be photographing beautiful floral arrangements or the shadows dancing across my bedroom wall, than a group of strangers chatting to each other pretending to have the best time.

I’d be expected to stand at an event all day snapping away, with the constant reminder that with a digital camera you can take hundreds and thousands of images at a time, all of which would then be edited, all of which take up space, space that has to also be bought in the form of hard drives/memory, yet sure I’ll happily do all of this for you for free!

I have felt at times like the profession has been cheapened to an extent, I see adverts constantly that will vaguely say ‘Photographer needed for event, £50’. Anyone can show up with a camera, stick it on automatic and fill a memory card, but when you’re a perfectionist that cares and you want to produce something of a high standard because over time you’ve developed a skill set and a work ethic you simply can’t work for free anymore. I also went for an interview to be a photographer at a local studio, the type of place for family studio shoots etc. The job was badly paid and you were expected to work weekends, however it was a job in photography and seemed like a great start for me.

I was interviewed by a man who didn’t work in photography, he just owned the studio. We chatted about my photographic work history, however out of everything I’d ever done and even despite having a degree in photography I was then told that he wasn’t sure that I’d be competent in a studio and would ‘need to see me work a camera in a professional environment before going any further with the application’ I walked out of the interview, cried and never went back.

One summer a couple of years ago following a string of enquiries asking whether I photographed weddings I decided to just go for it. I again had looked at every wedding photographer on the internet and convinced myself that I’d probably drop my camera, take blurry photographs, fall over, and have angry couples shouting at me because I’d ruined their wedding day. All that aside I found myself diving into it head first and as much as I was shaking at every wedding I photographed I managed to pull it off and my couples were happy (I think). One wedding stood out for me and if every day was like that I think I would have pretty much made up my mind on becoming a full time wedding photographer. I was in Wales and fell in love with the scenery, the couple were beautifully calm and the whole thing was serene. Words cannot explain the amount of respect I have for full time wedding photographers. I have worked alongside a couple of the best who have a way with interacting with people they barely know and remaining calm in the most intense of situations. Unfortunately I couldn’t cope with the anxiety that came with photographing such a precious event, nor the amount of editing afterwards that came with it, particularly after spending 8 hours in my full time job. I had tried something else and felt like I had failed…….again.

During the next few years I felt lost again and it got to the point where I had genuinely wanted to delete photography from my life for good. I didn’t pick up a camera for a long time. I felt that if I couldn’t make a career out of it I didn’t want it at all. I then felt even worse because image making was my passion, it gives me butterflies, it makes my head buzz and its taken me so many wonderful places, yet at that time I could only see the faults in my work.

I carried on going to work every day, I carried on feeling empty, I carried on wanting to create.

I then began connecting with people through social media and made a conscious effort to follow photographers/creatives with styles that I was creatively drawn too. I took a step back from actually making work and began to re-connect with what I actually wanted from photography. I looked back at old work, I opened sketchbooks from my A Level Photography and remembered how it all started, the beginning, the time I felt the butterflies for the first time. I would spend hours working on my sketchbooks and researching artists, I’d get excited when I’d discovered somebody new and read about their work and how it was created. It was as if I was re-learning the whole process of becoming inspired again and after some time I felt it, I felt like I could pick up a camera again and make something, only this time I knew I was doing it for only me.

These years that have passed after leaving university have enabled me to learn how creatively my mind works. It’s impossible for me to feel inspired all of the time, creativity comes in waves and I’ve learnt how to ride them. Before I was scared of going under after riding on an incredible high, that feeling when you come crashing down would be unbearable, only now I’ve learnt how to cope with that. I’ve learnt that in these moments its ok to rest, its ok to re-connect, to observe, to learn. I’ve learnt that I must never give up and that the things that I have done and felt I have not succeeded in have actually helped me in understanding what I do want.

Photography has enabled me to connect with so many people and this year I made it my goal to grab as many creative opportunities I could. I made a promise to not talk myself out of anything and to focus on a style of photography that I love. I recently met with two women that I speak to daily but had never met. We spent a day together and I photographed them in a part of London I’d never been to before. Photographing complete strangers had once been a fear, only now it has become my tool of communication, intimately capturing the first moments of a friendship.

My advice to anyone who is feeling lost creatively would be to go back, find what it was that made your heart full, and go full circle. I now understand the waves, and I’ll keep riding them.