Photography as a vocation
26/11/12 23:19 Filed in: Opinion
There’s a certain enthusiasm among young photographers to become “professional.” This isn’t always a money thing, though making money is not something one should have a reflexively negative response to. It seems to be a prestige thing, a way of separating oneself from the larger herd of camera wielding masses, which is essentially everyone these days.
But is being a professional necessarily the best way to distinguish your approach to photography from those of casual shooters?
More compellingly, is funnelling an interest in photography into the rather strict limitations of commercial work the only way to find satisfaction in making photographs?
Most of today’s new photographers have only been shooting for six years or so, and that reality makes me think back to where I was after half a decade of working with a camera. At that point, I was still some distance from being a commercial photographer, spending much of my time with a camera photographing theatrical productions all around the country under appalling lighting conditions, many of those images done to accompany reviews I was doing for the newspaper at the time.
That mix of projects, along with some advertising stills and some public relations photos to bring some money, provided me with an intriguing mix of challenges and allowed me to explore a range of photographic experiences,
But even then, it was clear that some of the things I was photographing would have no lasting value (particularly the pots and pans) and some might, depending on how history judged the images I was recording largely for my own amusement and sense of adventure.
I’ve kept a lot of that work, but I’ve also lost some of it as well. Some of it was lost to those few occasions on which I was a work for hire photographer and others to the type of carelessness and misplaced trust that would lead me to send someone a sheet of transparencies and then never see it again.
It was during this time that I began to get something of a reputation as an ass about my photographs, what we’d call being conscious of my copyright these days. When the Guardian lost two sheets of my slides, I had the audacity, or so the management of the day saw it, to demand that either a greater effort be made to find the work or that I be paid a fair fee for its loss.
That effrontery got me banned from the Guardian’s compound, both as a content provider and as a visitor, for two years by Mark Conyers, the CEO at the time as a response to my boldfaced letter requesting action.
It was a ban that would only be lifted in 1989, somewhat reluctantly by Conyers when CEO Designate Alwin Chow decided that I would be coming in to coach the photographic department. That project would turn into another interesting phase of my life.
I wasn’t clear about what I was doing back then, but intuitively, I understood that my creative work was the only thing of value that I owned as a photographer.
The equipment was depreciating (though at a glacial pace compared to today’s camera churn) and even to my relatively numb appreciation of finances, it seemed that negatives preserved was the better bet.
The catch is that you never know what’s going to be valuable and what’s just going to be another photo in a file that nobody cares about, even people who might be expected to.
It’s like that photograph of Monica Lewinsky at a fundraiser shot by Dirck Halstead that was just another snap at an event until it became visual evidence in a national scandal.
I’ve known many photographers over the last four decades in Trinidad and Tobago, men and women who created great work, some who created mediocre work and far too many whose work has simply disappeared.
When the photographer Jerry Llewelyn died, I contacted his widow, intending to gather his work for an exhibit that I’d hoped might raise some money for his family after a long and costly illness.
I knew that Jerry who had photographed alongside Derek Gay and myself during the amazing theatrical era of the late 1970’s and 1980’s had lost some of his negatives in a flooding at his home some years before.
I knew that much of his work done at The Trinidad Express during his time as the chief photographer there was the property of the paper, but I didn’t expect to get an envelope with nine prints. The sum total of his work over a productive and creative lifetime.
Other photographers like the amazing Harold Prieto, who basically owned the commercial photography sector throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, had shot and delivered thousands of pictures to his clients but kept only a few.
Other photographers had admirable archives that were either scattered and largely abandoned or left in a state of such incomplete organization that their heirs will have to evaluate the work now without their experience and understanding of the collections they have inherited.
At the Art Society’s recent Independence exhibit of photographs, Record : Art : Memory, I had several photos on show, chosen by the curatorial team led by Abigail Hadeed. They were culled from a small fraction of the images that I’ve photographed, images on film transposed to digital files in a process that’s even more challenging that older print processes but at least must be done only once per photo.
For the most part, they represent my work in photography as a vocation, image-making that made almost no sense at all financially, but were, very much, the reason I’d begun taking photographs in the first place.
Some of my colleagues in those days made far more money than I did, they made good money and they served the market well. I was able to improve my relationship with the market over time, but I was always pulled in two directions, the work that I saw that needed to be done and the work that I’d be paid well to do.
Despite our country's small size and lack of archival support systems and funding, it’s possible with a few sacrifices, to have a photographic career and a photographic vocation, but I’m not sure anything like that is part of the discussion about photography anymore.
It’s all, let’s shoot the pretty girls and turn their skin into plastic, and the supersaturated landscapes at dusk with the stars gliding across the sky and anyone on stage, doing anything.
It’s as if the language of photography has become monosyllabic as well as repetitive, like visual text messages copied and pasted over and over again and transmitted on Facebook to a chorus of LOLs and Likes.
There’s so much more that needs to be said with this increasingly pervasive visual language and so many more speaking it that it’s almost shocking that the conversation has dwindled into colourful grunts and groans.
This country deserves better, the craft deserves better and our history deserves more than the compromised record we are creating today.