Life and Lens
A nasty man once said to me, whilst laughing heartily, "What? You need a degree to press a button?". He was contemptuous of my degree in Photography, my first class honours degree. I made a personal note to cause him injury if our paths ever crossed again. He had a lucky escape.
There is so much more to taking a photograph than simply pressing a button and although you might not become a photographer as a result of a degree, the freedom to study enables you to identify the wider implications of the process.
My route into photography began after my brother, who worked photographing motorbikes for a while decided to become a Civil Engineer and gave me his cameras. By the time I finished my A Levels I knew I wanted to do something creative but practical and I embarked on an Art Foundation course. The course allowed me to try a variety of different mediums, but I still found that photography remained the one thing I really wanted to do.
After my Foundation course the interview for a place on Reading College's Photography and Digital Imaging HND was terrifying. I hardly had a portfolio, I wasn't really sure what it should contain anyway, and I certainly lacked the practical experience of other interviewees, but somehow I managed to secure a place.
The HND taught me a great deal, there were lots of practical sessions, demonstrations and technical advice. When the two years came to an end I stayed and the extra year converted my qualification into a full degree. The third year was more academic, but it allowed me to explore photography in a more theoretical manner, developing themes of interest, researching sociolinguistics and trying to summarise it all in the form of a dissertation. That third year passed by at hyper-speed and all of a sudden it was over. For a few days I didn't realise that it was time to slow down, calm down. Then, just as quickly, it became essential to find a job.
My course ended on Thursday, I rushed around taking down the end of year show work on Friday, moved home on Saturday and then left for a holiday in Greece on Sunday. The holiday was supposed to be a celebration, my reward to myself, a prize for my hard work and 'good conduct' ...it was a disaster! I was exhausted, drained, it was too hot, my friend went off with a funny looking man and I almost drowned in the sea. After that it was almost a relief to get home again but I still didn't know what to do with myself.
It was becoming urgent I needed a job, pretty much any job! I went to a temping agency and ended up working as a PA to a very round man who spent most of his working day eating M&Ms and sleeping. It only lasted a few weeks, he woke up one Friday afternoon and I had escaped. I realise, long before this point, that I should have been planning further ahead than my holiday in the sun. But even now I'm not sure how or when I would have done this.
The eternal cliche does of course have some basis in fact; when you are studying it seems there is no time to plan what you will do when you have finished studying, then when you finish studying it is too late and you need to earn some money. I was also starting to get paralysed by the feelings of guilt that rushed over me regularly. I felt disappointed not to be working in the field I had studied, I felt guilty for not working at all, even more guilty for not wanting to do jobs I didn't like and uncomfortable doing nothing.
I found this period of transition really disheartening and it was a horrible time for me. Finally I got some freelance work with the BIPP (British Institute of Professional Photographers) giving talks in colleges. This was great, I was able to go back to college and it led to me realising I needed a new environment, so I later took a job as a press photographer. I didn't want to work in journalism, but working on a newspaper was really beneficial for my photography, apart from making me work faster and to a brief it taught me to liaise with different people and think on my feet. I was even allowed to take the camera home when I was off duty.
Six months later I had a few good jobs under my belt, developed a network of contacts and been threatened by a man lurking outside the office one night who wanted to beat the news out of me. I left the newspaper and decided to go it alone. When I began freelancing I only had a film camera, no digital beauty. When a large drinks company called for a product shot they needed yesterday I couldn't do it. After crying, I got a loan, bought the best camera I could afford and registered with the Inland Revenue.
To begin with work came in slowly (there are times when it still does) but I began to get work published, exhibited and I got some high profile clients (with largely boring briefs). Last year I set up Total Image Nation (www.total-image-nation.co.uk) with the help of several other photography graduates. The idea of TIN is to promote and inform photographers, to make things a little bit easier and to create a community which offers support and opportunites for its members.
We have just had our second exhibition of members work and I am excited and proud to say that it was really well received. I still believe that things that are easy often aren't worth doing and that it is the things that prove a challenge or even a struggle that bring the greatest rewards. My advice would be to set yourself goals, but don't be afraid to change them, or upset if you don't quite achieve them; in business and photography the key is not to give up. I still maintain that anyone can take a photograph, but I hope that through TIN I can now help more people realise their ambition to become photographers. For more information, visit: www.total-image-nation.co.uk