Matthew Pontin is creative director of Fotonow CIC, a media organisation based in Plymouth developing photography and film projects as a catalyst for social change.
Image credit: Pano by Joseph Ball Created while exploring the wild spaces that exist quietly alongside humans. Shot on iPhone, unique inkjet print, as part of 2015/16 South West Graduate Photography Prize residency at KWMC.
The career of the photographer has constantly been shaped by the development of the technologies they employ. The pace of this change has been remarkable, where what was seen as a profession is now an activity in which everyone participates. When everyone is now a photographer, what must one do to sustain and stand out, what career could be more complicated when the digital age offers instant access to this most democratic tool.
When I joined the conversation with photography I was living in Liverpool and studying to be an architect – although not studying, more walking around a city with a 35mm film camera. I specifically remember that I was researching the India Buildings on Water Street, I had organised a tour and had the opportunity to explore behind the scenes of a tremendous steel frame construction designed to accommodate offices in the 1920s. At that point I realised that photography was enabling me to better understand myself, my interests, and to question high school careers advice to study architecture.
The India Buildings that had been the focus of my research were influence by the Italian Renaissance, and perhaps the same notion of cultural change and rebirth offered me confidence in realising that photography was a language I wanted to better understand. Leaving my studies to take up a City & Guilds photography course was seen by some as a step backwards, but for me it was like being given glasses to see more clearly. This focus allowed me to explore options, it had to be a degree course, every one I knew back then was doing a degree course, and eventually I applied to study Photojournalism at, what was then, Swansea Institute of Higher Education.
The programme was delivered by what felt like a genuine and creative team, ensuring that dialogue about the purpose of photography was always on the menu. Rarely did I think about the course in terms of where my career was heading, immersed in project work, research and writing – I was definitely learning how to learn. Like all graduates there is a sudden jolt that the experience ends, but for me this was well countered, I had entered and won the Welsh Graduate Photography Prize, working on a commission for Ffotogallery which culminated in the group exhibition and publication Ha Ha: Margam Revisited.
This single opportunity instilled a sense of personal confidence, a professional opportunity to use my education as a means to sustain and stand out, and emerge into a much more challenging world than that of education with a sense of creative, and financial, possibility. The DNA of this experience revealed eight years later through the founding of the South West Graduate Photography Prize, a Fotonow CIC initiative which has run for seven years supporting 44 graduates and in recent years offered the winner a residency with Knowle West Media Centre.
Whilst online I recently saw, more hurled at me through social media, the headline ‘Going to university is officially not worth it, says study’ (1) – this was set to a backdrop exploring the level of debt that graduates now face. The short article pointed out that research undertaken by the Intergenerational Foundation (2) claimed that ‘unless you go to Oxbridge or become a doctor – your university degree could be leaving you perpetually out of pocket’. It was a stark reminder how study has become entwined with career prospects, very likely reshaping universities’ obligations to fulfil expectations of employment – piling even more pressure upon the graduate.
I was left wondering, so how does the photography graduate now succeed – when almost everyone now has a camera, and levels of graduate debt are supposedly prohibitive to success. First there has to be that single opportunity, whether self-generated or stumbled upon, a foundation to construct the belief that technical and theoretical learning can have a functional place in the world. It is crucial that those who didn’t have to borrow tens of thousands of pounds, in order to learn how to learn, open pathways of support. For twenty years Knowle West Media Centre has grown and nurtured such opportunity, based in an unlikely community in Bristol, creating tangible pathways to employment for photographers (and other creatives).
Secondly the photographer must connect with what the medium can achieve; if study is now intrinsically linked with employment at the end then there is a strong chance that the purposeful conversations that photography can have, will be increasingly left ignored. Photography demands socially engaged approaches to practice, whether a commercial advertising photographer or community educator, the responsibility of the photographer still remains to communicate with others.
Making a living as a photographer has increasingly become harder, we all have a story about a photography job being undertaken for free, or how someone expected us to work for ‘the opportunity’ alone. The commercial sector is now flooded with choice in terms of which photographers to work with, therefore many graduates are looking to break into a saturated marketplace. Short-term the advent of drone photography offering something new to buy into, with the photographer becoming more pilot and less communicator.
There are social and moral obligations in being a photographer, understanding how photography affects, in making a difference in moving forwards. And it is this sense of momentum where a career can truly emerge from; when idea turns into reality, a photograph into project, a job into a business – all of which require a community to support. If photography becomes solely a means to be individually economically viable then the nature of the journey is harder to understand. People often ask ‘what do you do’ and there are not many careers where they can reply to your answer with ‘I do that too’. It’s not that often when you meet a doctor you can say ‘oh I do a bit of doctor work too sometimes’.
For this reason the photographer is perpetually reinventing their brand; visual artist, commercial photographer, curator, publisher – adding layers to cement means to sustain and stand out, clearly you can charge more money for things that others can’t easily do themselves. Specialising shouldn’t be an afterthought, nor to be faced with the reality that thousands of graduates emerge with a photography degree; ‘universities contribute to the public good by offering students an education in subjects that they are passionate about as well as an opportunity to earn a degree that, while not directly linked to future employment, nevertheless demonstrates intelligence, perseverance, analytical thought and a whole range of skills and traits useful to an employer. It would be sad were this ethos of picking one’s favourite course to be swept away in the hunt for some mythical graduate premium that allays the fear of incurring debt and the burdens of repayment’ (3).
The challenge is to understand what the ‘contribution to the public good’ looks like, and how a photographer’s ‘range of skills’ are fully explored to navigate towards this world of paid work. The degree should instill confidence that the journey ahead is exciting and open up networks and industry links that simply would be impossible without support; according to research conducted by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, 26.5% of positions filled in 2013/14 were given to graduates who had previously worked for their employers through internships or placements, or during gap years and in total 22% graduates recruited during 2013-14 went on to secure employment following a placement with the same company (4).
This suggests that opportunity will favour those willing to network, invest time into established modes of employment, will more quickly understand what has become a complex economy. Complimented by turing into the influence that photography has on you, why you entered the conversation in the first place. This understanding of communication will ultimately be the long-term sustainer of ideas, where success can be measured in smaller doses than perhaps the demands of the graduate premium promise. What is the mark you want to make, how can your creative footprints be left, and also sometimes followed. I look back at my degree, graduate career, and initiatives such as the South West Graduate Photography Prize in essence are the sum of work done by others who passed on a little of their creative DNA along the way.
Source: The AGR Graduate Recruitment Survey 2015, Winter Review, produced for the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) by CFE Research.