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The Only Certainty is Change

Instability as a catalyst for creativity. An essay by Stephen Mayes.

This essay could be a problem for some readers. If you embrace the insecurity of defining yourself as a photographer in a world that some say no longer values photography, read on; this could be an entertaining excursion into a world of possibility and uncertainty. But if you’re looking for comfort in the reassuring continuity of working in an established profession and all you want is an updated business model that accommodates some procedural disruption brought on by the Internet, this article like much else in your professional life is likely to be disappointing and possibly irritating.

For the truly creative spirit, any period of disruption is a time to celebrate change as an invitation to expand.

The common factor that binds us all together is confusion and what separates us is our attitude to that confusion. For the fearful this is a time of reduced opportunities, retrenchment and hardline assertion of laws and regulations that protected our careers in the last century. Meanwhile, for the truly creative spirit, any period of disruption is a time to celebrate change as an invitation to expand. Now, as never before in my rapidly expanding experience, is an opportunity to reinvent our role as visual communicators and to rewrite the rules of the business. Take for example all the assumptions we accept with the label “photographer”. For 170 years photographers found roles in commerce, journalism, art and a myriad niche specialties, yet whatever our market or form of creative expression we all accepted an extreme limitation on our function that restricted our status to that of a supplier. For sure this was a more glamorous form of supply, which ranked (in our own minds at least) above suppliers of stationery and utilities, but we accepted the same commercial imperative: as with every other supplier our business was subject to the whims of our clients who determined what they wanted, in what quantity, when and at what price. Whether selling prints to collectors, accepting commercial assignments or traveling internationally for the press our only real control was the word “no”. We could choose to accept the offered terms or not, and although there were certain points when we were able to restrict supply or pit clients against each other in a tussle to improve industry conditions, this model never offered full self-determination, even when dealing with the agents and reps who photographers assumed were there to stand up for photographers in the market.

It baffles me that anyone could consider the old system to be better, where simply for the security of a contracted check we were ready to concede the choice of what we photographed.

For the forward thinking and the bold, this situation has changed dramatically. As the once-familiar clients of the supply model have dropped off our “must-call” lists, it has become commonplace to refer to photographers as “publishers”. It’s an obvious reference to the revised distribution system that allows anyone with a mobile phone or a laptop to share their work with an audience without the mediation of a traditional publisher/distributor/advertiser/gallery. But to limit our understanding of the new vocabulary to mean only a new form of supply using a direct distribution model is to miss the point. When the author becomes the publisher we are suddenly liberated from the tyranny of the supply market: now we are truly master of our destiny: as publishers we decide what we want to talk about, we choose the media to best express ourselves and we select the distribution platforms most appropriate to reach the audiences that we determine. Furthermore, we retain control of our relationship with our communities (or whatever group we identify as the people-formerly-known-as-audience), and we have an active role in managing feedback and outcomes. We even manage the opportunities to monetize our presence in culture. It baffles me that anyone could consider the old system to be better, where simply for the security of a contracted check we were ready to concede the choice of what we photographed and we abandoned our responsibility for the image at the editor’s desk (or art-buyer’s collection point, or the gallery owner’s back office). We are no longer defined by a single skill (to make images) nor beholden to clients to decide what to photograph, when and at what price.

But with freedom comes responsibility and as the existentialists pointed out (along with some religious teachings), self-determination comes with a price of doubt and fear associated with the loss of innocence and greater potential for failure. There has been huge comfort in blaming the shortcomings of others for the failure of our images to reach the audiences or to inspire the changes we hoped for. (This complaint might not apply in the advertising world, where photographs have reached whole populations and been a primary driver of behavioral change, although few of us have actually made it a life’s ambition to provoke greater consumption of commercial products….) But now we can look at what we most want to achieve with our images, and if we’re falling short it’s possible to problem-solve a solution. We can do a lot more than ringing round the client list to find another buyer, and the solutions will be different for every photographer. It’s up to each of us to identify our strengths and to make ourselves relevant in our own way. The world no longer comes to the door of the inventor who makes a better mouse trap and the same is true of better pictures. With a mobile phone in every pocket there is no shortage of great imagery in the world.

Try not to think of photography as the outcome of your work but rather as the means to an end.

Grant Scott in his recent article “Transformations and Convergences” took this as the starting point for building a new attitude to a career as a professional photographer. He points out that selling to a client on the quality of your imagery is no longer sufficient, and it behooves us to identify other qualities by which to identify our value. There is no overall grand solution to the commercial issues facing today’s professional photographer but rather a myriad (maybe even an infinity of ) individual solutions. The proper response to the question, “What do I do now?” will start with, “Who are you and what are you trying to achieve?” The creative approach that distinguishes the work of one photographer from another is not so different from the creativity required to invent new business opportunities and it starts with seeing the world differently. Try not to think of photography as the outcome of your work but rather as the means to an end. Richard Stacy, a social media consultant, asks the question of every profession: “Are we candle-makers or creators of light?”

If indeed we choose to define ourselves strictly as photographers, in a very short period of time we will find ourselves in a gratifying but impecunious artisanal niche. But if we look beyond the defensive ramparts thrown up to defend last century’s commercial structures, we see that the rest of the world is having a lively conversation with and about visual imagery and maybe by joining that conversation we might benefit more than we lose. But loss is part of the process and we won’t persuade the world to continue seeing things the way they used to be. Nor should we even try. There was much wrong with the way things were and now we live in a privileged moment where change is possible. More than possible, it’s happening whether we agree to participate or not, but by using the same creative force that makes a great image-maker we can each shape our own part in the transforming world of visual communication.

by Stephen Mayes