Len Grant, co-founder of Redeye and a driving force in its early days, celebrates 30 years as a photographer this month with a new crowdfunded book. Here he gives an honest reflection on how his career has developed, and the importance of connections and collaborations.
It was June 1990. England lost to West Germany in the World Cup penalty shoot-out; Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the World Wide Web. I ditched my sales job and thought I’d try my hand at being a photographer. I had no responsibilities, a bit of savings. What could go wrong?
June 2020, 30 years on and I’m still at it. And now I’m about to publish a retrospective book of the last three decades. So, what have I learnt? What pearls can I pass to those following? Would I do it all over again?
But first, a summary: I spent the 90s and early 00s documenting major projects being built: Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, The Lowry, The Imperial War Museum North. Documenting neighbourhood renewal followed and then, after adding writing to my storytelling repertoire, I diverted to socially-engaged photography. The low paid and the vulnerable became my subjects and co-creators.
More books and blogs (some award-winning) followed, about teenage motherhood, and undocumented migrants. More recently, I’m more likely to have a paintbrush in hand as I also use sketching to tell stories.
So I’ve changed direction a number of times. Sometimes, because my client base disappeared, as it did after the 2008 crash. Other times, because I needed a new creative challenge. Diversity, and adding new skills, is crucial. In 1998, I went on an evening course to learn to write. Offering words as well as images to clients has undoubtedly won me work. With the seismic shift from analogue to digital and the way we disseminate our images, I’ve never stopped learning. This week I’ve learnt how to make an animated gif!
The desire to tell stories of the vulnerable had been smouldering for years. I’d pondered how to approach a personal project about those untouched by regeneration for at least five years before touring east Manchester with Allan, a homeless alcoholic. It was another two years before I’d add his story to that of a heroin addict and an asylum seeker to self-publish a new book. For those in socially-engaged photography, remember you are a conduit and your subjects are empowered by the stories you tell of them.
Talking to emerging photographers about their project ideas I’m surprised how few write down a plan or strategy. Early on I developed a niche and was fortunate, one commission followed another. I was considered the regeneration photographer, the documenter of the ‘new’ Manchester even. Having an eye on the long term, and developing a plan of how to get there – no matter how many times it is re-written – is no bad thing.
So what has kept me going? Always finding new inspiration from others has been important. And, just as architects might be inspired by music, as image-makers we should look beyond our own photobook collections for inspiration. Novels, films, other visual artists can all spark an idea. And everything starts with an idea.
As a photographer who has always worked alone – and from home – collaboration has been critical. I’ve worked with film-makers, poets, performance artists, educators etc. Sometimes that’s been on a project basis, and other times it’s been long-running. This retrospective book will be about the 25th publication that graphic designer Alan Ward and I will have worked on together. Sparking off other creative minds, where the final product is greater than the sum of the parts, is very satisfying.
Connection too, is important. In the ‘old days’ us photographers would be bumping into each other as we bought our film, or waited to pick up our ‘trannies’; we’d go for a beer after a session in the communal darkroom. Digital made us more solitary: sitting at home staring at our Macs. Yes, the web makes for wider connections with other creatives but how many of those connections become deep and long lasting? Pandemic aside, are we connecting as well as we could?
I have lots of advice, but let me impart one piece that’s unpleasant. If you need to make a living from your creativity then, whether you like it or not, you’re in business. So, be prepared to exchange your creative hat for your marketing hat from time to time, despite how ill-fitting it may be. If potential clients don’t know of you, how can you expect them to commission you? It gets easier after each tweet, post or newsletter.
And finally, a thought about self-belief. For years – literally years – I struggled with imposter syndrome. I felt sure I’d be rumbled and sent packing back to my sales job. Even now I have daily doubts and, over 30 years, my mental health has occasionally suffered. Yes, self analysis is important, and stress can be a motivator, but in moderation. I have a hand-drawn sign on the wall above my computer. It says: ‘Keep it fun’.
Len Grant is currently crowdfunding for his 30-year retrospective book. There’s an ‘early bird’ offer until 21st June.
Len’s website: lengrant.co.uk
Photo: Len Grant. 1994. The indoor arena next to Victoria Station, Manchester, takes shape.