The Redeye Team consider this a really helpful and useful read for photographers at multiple different stages of their career, from students to mid-career. Read on to find out about the four artists' experiences on building a career in the photography industry.
In the second instalment of Gem Fletcher’s industry interviews, we hear from four more artists on navigating agencies, hours, and side hustles.
From the beginning, developing a career as a photographer requires you to do everything off your own back and on your own dime. For most creatives, there is no safety net. This pressurised situation is then compounded by the industry’s systemic bias, today’s economic uncertainty, and a desperate need for more practical information about sustaining your business once you get it off the ground.
While the photography industry is undoubtedly perpetuating individualism, the tide is turning. Rather than looking inwards, artists have started to share their experiences with radical transparency. After all, how can we rebuild without first getting into the belly of the beast?
Hedging your bets
“At first, I didn’t think that being a photographer would be a sustainable [profession],” Rhiannon Adam says when I ask her how she started. “I tried to find ways into the industry that were more financially stable.” Adam began her career at the publisher Thames & Hudson, designing and marketing books. Over the years, she also ran a gallery, worked as an agent, started an imprint, authored three books, and hosted a BBC Radio 4 show – all the while remaining dedicated to her practice.
“People make this assumption that there’s one path to being a creative, and that’s going to art school,” says Adam. “I hedged my bets and learned about the industry through taking on various roles [within it]. In some ways, it’s been amazingly liberating and made me selfsufficient by giving me all the practical skills I needed as an artist.” Having such a wide-ranging set of skills meant that Adam was able to make the most of any smaller opportunity that came her way, particularly at the beginning of her career. “The willingness to get my hands dirty has been so formative,” she says. “There are many different ways to sustain a practice, and there is no shame in that.”
The stakes are high in Adam’s personal work, which demands time, flexibility and a sustained commitment to the cause over many years. She often works with remote communities that parallel her complex, nomadic upbringing. Her deeply personal projects interrogate the tension between utopia and dystopia. Forging an enriching and economically sound path enabled Adam to set up the right circumstances for her practice without being beholden to commissions and compromise.
Adam explains: “I could force myself to find 10 interesting things, write a lot of pitches, and spend my life doing that. But is that really what matters to me? Isn’t it better that I try to sustain my practice by staying true to my artistic vision, which is about making work that I think needs to be made, and tackling subject matter that is difficult and uncomfortable? I don’t work on projects where I’m just parachuting in and doing this thing and then leaving again. My whole life is this work, and I’m living it. I think [as artists] it’s important to give yourself the space and time to do that.”
Know your worth
As a society, we are waking up to the pitfalls of glamourising overworking and wearing burnout as a badge of honour. Yet, for most artists creating and upholding boundaries to protect their work and wellbeing is an ever-evolving task. For Campbell Addy, one thing was clear: “You shouldn’t be able to use my work for free.”
“During my early days, I felt very overwhelmed,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand the industry and often had to go against my nature to one-up the system. I learned quickly that it was on me to uphold my value and that people will treat you better if there is a degree of separation.” Taking advice from a friend, Addy created a new email address and formed a new persona to start negotiating his fee. “Trying to make ends meet was draining at the beginning, especially when I was spread thin juggling a retail job and my photography without protection or support from an agent.”
Addy learned about the industry through multiple side hustles and used that to leverage his work. Shortly after graduating, he launched Niijournal and Nii Agency, born out of a desire to shift power in front and behind the camera, while cultivating space for his community to be together and build together.
“With Nii Agency, I learned about contracts, rates and usage fees. I then took this insight into my personal craft. As an agent, I found it much easier to ask questions because I was working on behalf of someone else. While it was stressful to wear so many hats, these side hustles gave me an entirely new perspective,” says Addy. “However, knowing my worth as a photographer also made negotiating harder.” Brands would laugh in Addy’s face when he named his fee, calling him ‘aggressive’, ‘ungrateful’ and ‘a diva’. “They’d say, ‘We’re doing you a favour.’ It was degrading, and comments like that break you down,” he recalls.
Despite the mental turmoil, Addy has built a successful photography career straddling art and fashion in just nine years, working globally for Vogue, Time and The Wall Street Journal. He crafted his personal style, understood his worth, and strategically utilised his resources to create opportunity and influence. Understanding the need to produce images with high production values and a minimal set-up was vital to avoid racking up debt in his early days.
Addy explains: “As a photographer, you must be savvy as you are financially responsible for the entire production. I remember finding these stunning early portraits by Inez van Lamsweerde lit with a lamp in her house. That stayed with me for a long time. It pushed me to be experimental; I’ve used Ikea lamps, lighting from a TV, and an oven at one point – not everything has to be a huge, expensive set-up.”
Lessons in starting over
As a first-generation Iranian-American, the pressure to be successful was drilled into Sinna Nasseri from a young age. The self-taught artist, whose sharp and intimate storytelling for publications such as Interview and The New York Times offers a mirror to contemporary society, is relatively new to the industry. Until 2018, Nasseri worked as a successful yet unfulfilled lawyer for one of New York’s most prominent firms. He found photography through improv music, inspired to document the energy of the musicians during their late-night shows. Yet, shifting professions and starting over was not easy.
“Being a photographer these days is about surviving,” Nasseri says. “Earning enough money to make the work you want is difficult. At the end of 2019, I wasn’t getting any assignments or making money. I reached a point where I felt that my work was getting to a good place, but I was frustrated at the lack of momentum. You look around at all these amazing, busy, successful artists, and you’re not [there with them]. It hurt. It was a tough time when I felt like I had no purpose – I was quite depressed.”
In January 2020, Nasseri borrowed his dad’s car and followed the Democratic primaries in the build-up to the US election. He did not have a plan; he just knew he needed to change tack. His risk-taking paid off when Vogue’s digital team discovered his project and commissioned his first story. Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, Nasseri shot nine stories for Vogue that year, setting him on an entirely new creative trajectory.
Take time to reflect
On the flip side, the mid-career reflection point is a pertinent and often defining moment where you assimilate everything you have learned to think about what comes next. For Charlie Engman, it has been a time to metabolise his experience and evaluate mistakes, while remaining open to new modes of making.
“I could have been slower, and I could have said no to more things,” says Engman, whose career trajectory, contrary to the typical long slog of the majority of photographers, developed very fast. The New York-based artist’s inimitable style met the moment of the 2010s. It caught the attention of high-end and commercial fashion brands, giving him financial security and creative cachet early on. While he worked intensely for several years, he did not have an agent, and managing every production by himself took its toll.
“I was travelling worldwide, so I was booking my flights, hotels and teams,” Engman explains. “The pace was intense, and I was a wreck. I didn’t know how to manage a photo career. I’d never assisted anyone and never intended to be a photographer. I realise now that many of my mistakes come from not putting my foot down and respecting my position. I should have been clearer about what I needed to do a good job rather than taking the path of least resistance.”
Engman continues: “I do have feelings of missed opportunity and fantasy regrets that I could have focused more on the art side of my practice, but I was getting deluged with commercial requests, and we live in a capitalistic world where making money feels pretty good. Now, I’m trying to build healthy boundaries around incoming requests while also realising my own work that isn’t in service to any notion of career.”
Imagining new futures
So what now? Over time, the hope is that radical transparency will bring us together, reveal blind spots and dismantle the untold truths that hide between perception and reality. And yet, if we want to redefine our creative culture and forge new ways to build artistic lives, we must show up daily to dismantle the status quo and embrace incremental change. “We have to start asking ourselves, what is the industry we want to create?” says Adam. “Are we feeling fulfilled in this? And if not, how do we do things to change that? We all have a part in creating that future.”
Photo credit: Rhiannon Adam.