I dreamt once, as a child, that there was an assorted collection of toys in my father’s wardrobe. They felt so real, so colourful and bright, these toys, that I could almost feel them even though they were out of reach on a top shelf in my dream. Upon waking I excitedly rushed to go and open the doors of the wardrobe, in hope of finding them, but there was nothing there. No matter how hard I searched, there was nothing there, and yet in the days which followed, I still continued to look.
Those first moments of consciousness, upon awakening in the morning, as I still hang onto the coattails of an unconscious world, slowly slipping away. I often pretend to still be asleep. Not out of fear for what the day may hold, to any great degree, although, in truth, sometimes it is, as the days of the pandemic continue to grow with no end in sight. But no, I’m not afraid - well OK, just a little - but I do pretend to still be asleep as to not be the one who has to get up to make the coffee.
Yet, each morning I awaken, spat out from an ethereal world of my own mind’s making, to be rebooted, often with newly found optimism, but invariably infused with the self-reflections of life which take me to yesterday and then tomorrow, as I slowly come to terms with being awake, and of being alive, staring upwards at the ceiling.
Then, after a short while, I roll over onto my side and pray for sleep once more, but always, without fail, nothing comes. Just the sound of early morning traffic exhaling into the distance like a drawn-out, fed-up-of-it-all sigh perhaps made by a bored portfolio reviewer.
Is it sad to say that often my first waking thoughts in the morning are of photographs or of their making and that my last thoughts at night are too? Often these appear as acts of remembrance about those people who passed in front of my camera and our relationships which of course never were and yet always will be.
But also, there are those thoughts of, well, what’s the point of all this? What’s the point of photography, that job, that life, which you can’t switch off from?
These thoughts and I’m no Columbo, usually, and in a totally unconnected manner, of course, seem to reveal themselves towards the end of each month when those pesky bills need to be paid. *Shakes fist at capitalism, gaining two extra steps on the Fitbit strapped to his wrist in the process*
Perhaps the pandemic has created these anxieties in so many people right now - not just photographers. There was something fundamental about governments around the world, at the height of the pandemic, calling some workers essential and the majority of others non-essential. If your job isn’t considered essential to help a society function, well, what is the point of it? And what is the point of us?
But then it hit me, perhaps I am not even an essential worker within photography? It dawns on me that if I were never to take another photograph, ‘Photoland’ would never even blink an eye and never even skip a beat.
So, what is the purpose of what I do? What is the purpose of all those years of struggle and strife to get to a position within my career where I am still worrying about paying the bills?
It’s funny how money, or lack thereof, forces you to question your choices, right?
Those choices which sometimes makes you wonder what it would be like to have a ‘proper’ job that you didn’t have to take home, that didn’t cause you to churn over and dwell on at day’s end or at day’s waking. A job which paid you for the hours that you have actually put in. Perhaps no such job exists, or won’t exist in a future made by a pandemic and a looming global recession, where everyone, if not an essential worker, is prone to be cast aside as surplus to requirements.
But what is it about, not just photography, but the arts in general, which makes people who work within them think that what they do is more than just a job, and when does a job become one’s life? A window cleaner, for example, who had no windows to clean would simply do something else. So, why do photographers think that they are so different, better and more entitled, that they ‘stick with it’ when there’s no work?
Is it that we consider this a ‘calling’, or that so many of us have made such an investment of time and resources that we are unable to make a change? Or is it that we were sold an impossible dream to begin with? Many of us went to art school and were taught photographic skills, yet we were never told how to monetise those skills. We’ve been told what is ‘good’ photography and what is ‘bad’, and we’ve even listened to disparaging comments made about certain types of commercial (read ‘lifestyle’ photography) made by senior lecturers that left an indelible stain on impressionable students about art and money.
Perhaps if photography courses are unable to teach you how to make money out of the industry they shouldn’t be running, some might say. Yet, it never dawned on me at the time that, if the photo industry was so bountiful, why were my lecturers' teaching and not practising anymore? But that said, I would never change my experience of university, as it was at least for me a working-class Black man from Dudley, life-changing.
Of course, it is only when we leave art school that the real work begins.
I had a friend who stopped being a photographer and got a job in PR. It was a fantastically well-paid job with security and benefits and the trappings that came with it. Yet, I looked at him as if he was a failure, as if he’d ‘sold out’. Sold out of what, I’m not sure, but I imagine that he also looked at me with similar disparaging thoughts, a photographer growing in years still waiting for that big break that would never come.
Is photography a cult or is it a pay to play pyramid scheme?
Sometimes I think that it must be a cult, when I see photographers from the analogue denomination square up to other photographers from the digital denomination. Or street photographers with their rigid dogmas or photojournalists still speaking of photographic truth.
But what if is it also just a glorified pyramid scheme?
According to Letitia James, NY Attorney General, “A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent system of making money based on recruiting an ever-increasing number of ‘investors.’ The initial promoters recruit investors, who in turn recruit more investors, and so on. The scheme is called a ‘pyramid’ because at each level, the number of investors increases. The small group of initial promoters at the top require a large base of later investors to support the scheme by providing profits to the earlier investors.”
What if we changed ‘investors’ to photographers and ‘promoters’ to gatekeepers? Gatekeepers pushing yet another pay to enter competition, pay-to-play portfolio review, or asking you to stump up £15k to have a book published that you’d be very lucky to make pennies back on? All pushed at you like things which will get you up to a new level. Gatekeepers, like snake oil sellers, pushing all of those things to desperate “investors” cravings for success, whatever that is.
Maybe, for me, success, after all of this, is simply measured in being able to pay my bills at the end of the month.
Being able to get through to another month, buying myself more time while I look through the wardrobe of my making for those bright coloured toys of my dreams, which I seem always still to be in search of.
CreateSpace is a Creative Health CIC project in partnership with Arts Council England, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Staffordshire County Council.