Mental Health and the Photography Industry

After graduating my BA in Photography from the University of Plymouth in July 2018, I was under the illusion that working as a photographer would be easy. I had created a graduate project that was interesting and unique called A Handshake with a Martian. It was featured in several online blogs such as Photograd, Fable and Folk, RPS Magazine, while being shortlisted in Fujifilms and Burn Magazines Young Photography Awards. I figured that this relative success or interest would lead to more opportunities and work, both commercially and within the documentary genre. The project did lead to some opportunities, however nothing concrete, nothing paid, nothing that I wanted. It quickly became apparent that working as a photographer would be far harder than I predicted, my arrogance and confidence had deceived me, filling me with a sense of self-doubt and failure that I haven’t previously experienced.

I live in Devon, a county defined by its rolling green hills and stunning moorland. A place to retire, to get away from the worries of everyday life for the outsiders, but yet, for those who live here, it provides little to no opportunities for a full-time career, especially in the arts, however, it is often referred to as a hub of wedding photography.

Donald Weber, From Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl man falling over drinking in Chernobyl the south west collective of photography
Donald Weber, From Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl
Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011 photography aftermath the south west collective of photography
Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011

“What about wedding photography, your good at that right?”

The wedding market is booming and has always been prominent in Devon, but yet pricing is currently at an all-time low. Photographers undercut, compete, discredit and bash one another, rather than agreeing to a universal set price or hourly rate which would benefit all photographers. The competition between one another is fierce, while clients don’t understand photography or want to pay high prices. There is this underlying assumption by some that anybody can be a photographer so why pay? Everybody has a camera with them on their phone so now they are photographers?. The nail in the coffin to photography being labelled as a trade.

At some point, photography has changed, whether that be due to smartphones or technology it makes no difference. You wouldn’t ask a plumber or tradesman to work for free, so why a photographer? In Devon wedding photography is prominent, but yet pricing and clients are difficult to secure. While on the other hand, paid commercial work is few and far between and the distance from other arts-based organisations make any activities difficult. However, its not impossible to find work here, you just have to put in the time and effort to get results.

Samuel Fradley a handshake with a martian the south west collective of photography rendlesham forest suffolk huskies and man in the dark
Samuel Fradley, A Handshake with a Martian, 2018.

“What about the photography industry, there are loads of jobs in London”

It is no secret that the majority of arts-based jobs are in London, it is the capital of the United Kingdom and a hub for British Arts and Culture. However, let us establish something first and foremost, there IS NO PHOTOGRAPHY INDUSTRY. This word, industry, has been thrown around a lot, I even used it to describe The South West Collective when I founded it. An industry is something huge, something that has a major effect on an economy or thousands of people at any one time. The recent collapse of Tata Steel is a prime example of what an industry is. Tata was the British Steel industry. Now the British Steel industry barely exists.

Concerning the photography industry that we are all seamlessly chasing, there are institutions and organisations, like this Collective, that operate, promote and exhibit photography. However, the majority of these operate independently or only exhibit the work of famous and established artists, as it’s the only way they can sell tickets and have footfall in their shows. This is a fact, however from a business perspective, you can understand this as the bills do not pay themselves. Photography is based on opinion and preference and it is out of our hands whether people like or dislike our work, or whether someone chooses to exhibit it or not. It’s truly a vicious meticulous cycle. So where does that leave us? Where does it leave the students and the graduates when they are thrown into the world, with no real warning about what is to come?

Dan Wood Pove The Great the south west collective of photography ltd slingshot
Pove the Great - Dan Wood

When I was studying, the industry was referred to all the time, in lectures, by other photographers, even after university, people I had never met referred to it, but it’s not a thing. This sense of pursuit, sense of competition, it is toxic. The photography “industry” is toxic for students, graduates and photographers in general. I found myself comparing my work to others, thinking that mine wasn’t good enough because of what I was seeing published in magazines. It’s almost always medium format Portraiture, the same style and quite frankly it’s boring. Photography has got to a point where 10 photographers could have taken the same picture and you couldn’t tell who took it. Now, this is only my opinion of course, you may agree or disagree, but photographers need to remember to follow their own path, their own vision and their own style. We cannot conform to playing follow the leader, we cannot focus on what has been done, we can only focus on what is in front of us. We live in arguably, the most turbulent political time in human history, it is our duty to document that. Chase your own dreams and create the work that you want to make.

University’s need to stop referring to the notions of this industry and students need to stop chasing something that barely exists. Universities and tutors now need to be realistic when teaching, be realistic with what is to come, explain that in reality, you are going to need to work part-time to fund your photography, to fund living and paying the bills. It is vital to also discuss other routes such as assisting or using those photographic skills that you have learned in another type of job, such as marketing. There are ways to make money and make a living, but you just have to go out and find it.

Archie Wells, Britains Knife Crime Crisis, 2019.

I made The South West Collective to make a difference, to be real, to not charge you £50 to enter a competition. I know what it’s like to compare yourself, to doubt yourself, to feel like nothing is working. I run a company that I don’t pay myself from. So what is my advice?

Firstly, send your work to anyone and everyone. Don’t think about whether it is good or not, just get on your computer and do it. Don’t hesitate, don’t doubt, only you can put your work out their, nobody is going to do it for you.

Secondly, take every opportunity that you get. I hate commercial work, I despise it, but yet this year I have photographed a music festival, a business conference, office furniture and more. I have taken every opportunity that I have been given whether it be paid or unpaid because I need that experience to justify my price.

Thirdly, regardless of what people say, working for free isn’t always bad. University didn’t prepare me for commercial work. My portfolio was all of a documentary genre, so after graduation, I had to grit my teeth and work either super cheap or for free, because I had no portfolio. Don’t let people take the piss, or ask too much, be firm, but it is crucial to create a strong commercial portfolio to build up clients and justify your price. The portfolio is your way of showing off your skills, remember that.

Four, don’t be arrogant.

Lastly, if you feel like the weight of the world is falling on you, or that your work isn’t good enough, TALK TO SOMEONE. I recently had a friend who took his own life and I cannot fathom what he was going through. Don’t hide how you feel, don’t be scared to talk to others. We are a community, we all make work but that doesn’t mean that we are not human. We are the makers of our own destiny.

It is important that you understand that I cannot run this collective for much longer without taking it on full time. We have recently launched The South West Collective Membership that costs as little as £5.00 which will give you exclusive rewards and acces too content, We would really appreciate it if you could support us!

Article by Collective Founder, Samuel Fradley

If you enjoyed this article by Sam, check out our interview with Dan Wood: