Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Freelancing, creativity and recession

© Greg Funnell 2008
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about careers and future, and from what I’ve been reading recently in blogs and articles I know a lot of other people have too. Maybe it is the current financial climate that is making people stop for a second and re-evaluate their life, where they're going with it and what things they matter. Financial chaos does that to you, it makes you sit back and look at what you really value in life, what things you need and what things you can learn to live without. I’m not saying I’ve been hit badly yet by this recession but it has caused me to do a lot of thinking. The piece that follows is really just a bunch of jumbled thoughts on the industry, on being freelance, on the concept of creativity and a bit of business practice thrown into the mix. It draws on a number of sources, namely Andrew Hetherington, Chris Floyd, Rob Haggart and Doug Menuez, but to start with it's...

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of ‘Eat ,Pray, Love’. In the 20 min TED talk she did recently (see link at the end of the post) Gilbert poured out her personal concern on the pressure of creativity on the individual. Something that she feels very close to given that she feels that she may never replicate the success of the above mentioned book. How does one deal with such a concept that your best work may already be behind you. She touches on the concern that we as a society place to much pressure on the creative individual, something we can date back to the renaissance when societies started to see genius as part of the self rather than from an outside source or spirit. She believes such a burden is too heavy to expect people to carry, pointing at the large numbers of creative minds that ended their lives prematurely during the 20th Century, either by their own hand or by the pressures they put on themselves. She quotes Norman Mailer as having claimed that every one of his books killed him a little bit more. The highs and lows of the creative mind reveal the addiction of creativity, the high of feeling like you’ve made sense of something and communicated it in a meaningful way and the lows of failing in that task (a far more likely and frequent outcome), what a photographer I recently interviewed imaginatively called "the filth hole".

A piece by the photographer Doug Menuez that I saw posted by Chase Jarvis also touches on the frustrations of the creative process. Doug however believes he has solutions, a business plan no less, to not only survive the current economic woes, but also to keep afloat your creative enthusiasm. He warns against the routes that many take, especially when freelancing, of misjudging the balance between doing the work you want to do, and the work you feel you need to do to survive. This he argues is likely only to lead to a financial and creative plateau; "After a few years they hate their work and life in general. They are getting divorced or leaving the business or pursuing whatever diversion eases the pain". When I read this last bit I couldn’t help remembering an article I read on What The Jackanory, with Andrew Hetherington in conversation with the British based editorial photographer Chris Floyd. In some ways Chris seems to have done the opposite, going from living in NYC and doing the work he loved, environmental portraiture, to moving back to London and doing perhaps less exciting but more financially viable celebrity based work. It doesn’t seem as though this is down to any decisions on Chris’s part but rather the state of the UK editorial market – Hetherington uses a Don McCullin quote to sum up his views on the sociological issue at it’s heart; (In Britain) "lifestyles rather than life were coming into fashion". In a struggling economic market freelancers have to fight their own corner, and it can feel like a damn lonely one. Floyd goes against what Menuez preaches in some ways, claiming that a lot of the great work produced comes from commissions and gigs, and that trying to exist in your own self-defined vacuum is a dangerous game. Floyd would rather be seen as an artisan than an artist. Even so it is clear that Floyd suffers from the same creative anguish discussed by Gilbert, along with all the trappings that go with it. In an earlier post on APE he admitted in the comments section that; “sometimes weeks go by where the best bit of the day is where you get to go to sleep intoxicated and numb with self loathing”. He goes on to say;

I am smart enough to know that the weather can change like that. You see, the thing about what we do that our friends with safe, secure nine-to-fives will never quite grasp is that, although to them our lives look sweet and easy going, we get no sick pay, no holiday pay, no guaranteed income or pay check and most importantly, no one to talk to or share problems with in the office or the pub after work. Those fears are always there. In the evenings, before bed, at weekends, on holiday, on Christmas Day… We do this alone… The buzz from this job can be incredible, but can you take the solitude and doubt? We lay it all out there and have to survive on each and every roll of the dice”.

Couple this with Gilbert’s thought that her greatest success may well be behind her and, as she says, it’s the kind of thought that can lead a person to start drinking gin at 9 o’clock in the morning. However Floyd’s words are in some way a huge comfort to myself and I’m sure would be to a lot of young photographers. Although it shows that this uncertainty never really goes away even if you do become as successful as someone like Chris, it also shows us that we’re not alone.

These are stressful times for freelancers, with the economy the way it is and the continued dumbing down of the population towards photography as a profession and a skill, hastened by the advancement of digital technology. I’m sure there are plenty of photographers with anecdotes to back this up. Take for example a job I was on the other day photographing a minor UK celebrity for a university publication. Midway through the event he questioned my being there (not in a vindictive way but out of curiosity) because the previous week the journalist interviewing him for a web article for another institution had only needed to snap his picture on an i-phone. The game is changing in many ways but there will still be a place for photographers. Something that probably best highlights this is another of Chris Floyd's excellent anecdotes that he imparted to Hetherington on WTJ;

'It’s like that line, “How can you justify your fees? It only took you twenty minutes to do it!” Yes, it did, but it took me twenty years to learn how to do it in twenty minutes.

Anyway if you’d like to read more I suggest you check out the Chris Floyd/Andrew Hetherington conversations here and here

The Elizabeth Gilbert video can be viewed here

Doug Menuez’s article can be seen here

And if you like to see what I've said above to some extent but in a far more poetic and visually interesting way then watch this video.

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