Jan 312011
 

I read an article written by Grant Scott in the August 2010 edition of Professional Photographer magazine. It was about the loneliness of being a freelance professional photographer.

While at times it seemed like an layman’s guide to depression some of it most definitely struck a chord with me:

As photographers, we do sit in front of our computers staring at the screen wondering who to contact next looking for work and how. We do wonder why nobody replies to our emails, returns our telephone calls or rings us with the perfect job. We do look at other photographers sites, compare our work to theirs and wonder “why are they busy and I am not, what do they have that I have not?”

Without the social elements of an office or studio full of people it is hard to get up every day and motivate yourself to create new reasons for people to come and see you, it is hard to find new clients and it is hard to remain creative and continue the daily slog of self-promotion.

It requires a huge amount of determination, self-belief and stamina to keep going. A photographer works in a profession that requires huge self-belief in ones work and oneself. We have nothing to sell other than our personality and creativity. When either or both are rejected our self-belief takes a battering and the more it happens the more our self-belief declines dramatically. Few of us have anybody close to us that understand the pressures of being a professional photographer.

We try, we desperately want to, give out a successful, positive persona to persuade our prospective clients they are buying into a success story. Thus we lie.

When we are asked how we are doing, how the recession is affecting us and how we are enjoying things at the moment, we lie. We try to juggle the truth; we create two versions of ourselves, the real one and the public face that meets with the client and exudes success wherever and whenever one advertises.

It is a hard act to maintain when you read the photographic press and see the success others are having. It is a hard act to maintain when you see the success your peers are purportedly having. It is a hard act to maintain when in moments of ego and extreme self-belief you compare yourself to the truly successful in the world of photography and know ‘I could have done that.’

There is a subtle difference to the paragraph above and the old joke about photographers; How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb? Fifty, one to change the bulb and forty-nine to say “I could have done that!”

Sometimes, if budget and equipment were not an issue some of us really could ‘have done that.’

Sometimes, the editors and creative directors that we as photographers are applying to for work forget that the Crewdson’s, the LaChapelle’s and the Leibovitz’s of the industry are teams of other creatives including assistants, lighting assistants, make-up artists, stylists, post production teams and marketing assistants. They are not freelancers working alone.

In fact, Annie Leibovitz tells a story in her book; At Work, where Dorothy Wilding was employed to photograph The Queen and wasn’t even in the room when the photograph was taken! Apparently Wilding’s assistants, who were trained in her style, often went out and took photographs for her. Often, she wasn’t in the same country. At one time she employed around thirty-seven people in her studio.

In his Professional Photographer article, coincidentally, Grant Scott mentioned a book called ‘Shoot the Damn Dog’. It was written by Sally Brampton, the woman that launched the magazine Elle and then suffered a clinical depression. She recovered (or so she’d thought) and became the editor of Red magazine, a position she was fired from due to ongoing depression. I’ve just finished reading the same book. On page sixty two Sally describes how she felt after being fired:

She felt that her self, her sense of worth and her calling was that of a successful magazine editor. By being fired, by losing her job as an editor of a mainstream magazine she felt that she’d failed at being herself. If she was no longer fit to be an editor then what was her worth? By failing in the role of an editor she herself had failed. What did she have left if her self had been taken away and she had no way forward or way to regain that self?

That struck a chord with me too… If I fail at being a photographer then what do I have left? I define myself as a photographer. I live to be a photographer. If I cannot be a photographer then what do I, myself, have left? I cannot answer the question. I have no answers. I do not see myself as anything but a professional and successful photographer.

For one moment in time, on this blog, I’m going to refuse to lie. The public face is going to be the real face. The real face is going public. Maintaining a show of success where there is none is laborious and wearisome. Trying to maintain momentum and enthusiasm in the midst of a clinical depression is nigh on impossible. Motivation and creativity are all but impossible when you’re this lonely and depressed.

Within the past month I could have and was more than prepared to die, which I would have were it not for a sentence spoken to me. I can truly understand why photographers and other creatives commit suicide.

I did not know them or could ever purport to know what they were thinking at the time but I can sympathise with Diane Arbus, Bob Carlos Clarke, Warren Bolster, Terence Donovan, Pierre Molinier, Francesca Woodman and the many other not so famous unnamed photographers that have committed suicide.

I will leave the last words on suicide to Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Part of his suicide note read; “I am depressed… without phone… money for rent… money for child support… money for debts… money!!! I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners… I have gone to join Ken (his recently deceased colleague, Ken Oosterbroek) if I am that lucky.”

I have no idea what the statistics are for photographers as a sub-group but in the period 2009/2010 1.25 million people in the UK sought help for mental health issues. 33% of all General Practitioner’s time was taken up by mental health disorders. At it’s current rate of increase, by 2020 depression will be the 2nd most disabling condition behind heart disease. 10 times more people suffer from major depression now than in 1945 and in the UK alone more than £100 billion is spent per annum on mental health care.

From Wikipedia:

The criteria below are based on the formal DSM-IV criteria for a Major Depressive Episode. In order to be diagnosed as suffering from a major depressive episode, the patient must meet the following criteria:

Over a two week period, the patient has consistently experienced five or more of the following symptoms, and these behaviours must be outside the parameters of the patient’s normal behaviour. Either depressed mood or decreased interest or pleasure must be one of the five (although both are frequently concomitant).

  • For the better part of nearly every day, the patient reports a depressed mood or appears depressed to others.
  • For most of nearly every day, interest or pleasure is markedly decreased in nearly all activities (noted by the patient or by others).
  • Although not dieting, there is a marked loss or gain of weight (such as 5% in one month) or appetite is markedly decreased or increased nearly every day.
  • Nearly every day the patient sleeps excessively, known as hypersomnia, or not enough, known as insomnia.
  • Nearly every day others can see that the patient’s activity is agitated or slow.
  • Nearly every day the person experiences extreme fatigue.
  • Nearly every day the patient feels worthless or inappropriately guilty. These feelings are not just about being depressed, they may be delusional.
  • Noted by the patient or by others, nearly every day the patient is indecisive or has trouble thinking or concentrating.
  • The patient has had repeated thoughts about death (other than the fear of dying), suicide (with or without a plan) or has made a suicide attempt.

Since my ill-fated photographic studio closed in 2009 I have experienced all nine of these symptoms virtually every day. I am still experiencing most of the nine symptoms every day and yet I am still trying hard to maintain an outward facade of success. It is beyond tiring and most days I fail. Today I am being honest about my failure.

Since I took up photography as a profession I have failed (by the definition of being a ‘professional’) and have therefore failed to be the essence of who I perceive myself to be. If I am not a professional photographer then I am just a photographer, a hobbyist.

Yet, in times of clarity I know I have the talent. I can be a professional photographer. I can be a great professional photographer.

When I need reminding why I do this I try to read the compliments on my website and take them on board; unlike the testament from Mrs. Smith in Blackpool on how Union Meerkat Insurance provided her with the best service ever, the testaments on my website are real and verifiable.

I became a professional photographer because that was my dream job. Being a professional photographer would also pave the way for my other dreams to come true. So far I have failed and am crushed by depression wondering, like Sally Brampton did; if I am not a professional photographer then who am I?

I know I am not a corporate slave. I am not a member of the service industry, neither am I a cook or a mechanic or a lorry driver. I am not a wedding photographer and neither am I a photographer that sells shoddy ‘portfolio’ photo-shoots to ill-informed want-to-be models for thirty quid a time.

I want to be a PROFESSIONAL, PUBLISHED, WORKING, ARTISTIC, photographer/artist.

But.

I sit here at the computer, lonely and depressed wondering who to contact next and how. I have the weight of fear, anxiety, procrastination and depression crushing me everyday and I have no one to turn to for help.

My counsellor is only words in my ear once a week. My closest friends don’t have the experience to help me and as yet, even though I’d be loathe to share my plans with peers I don’t even have the peers with enough experience to help me. I am the one they often turn to for advice!

So.

I sit here at the computer, lonely and depressed with a plan to turn everything around. A plan that I know will work, wondering who to contact next and how. Knowing that when I do know the right person to contact, I’ll have to put on my public face full of lies and stories of success when underneath, my current defeated self is cowering with fear, procrastination and depression.

I have spent hours on my plan. It is a story, in itself, of self-discovery. It is biographical. It is life changing. It is my dream, it is my dreams come true. It is altruistic in parts, it is self serving in parts. It is a wonderment and an abhorrence. It is a thank you and a fuck you. It is charity and it is greed.

I sit here at the computer, lonely and depressed with a plan to turn everything around…

I need encouragement when my motivation fails. I need someone to have belief in me when I fail to have belief in myself. I need someone to help financially support my plan for the next three months.

Who the hell do I turn to?