The paradox of all creative professions

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Imagine you’re hired to do something on the basis of the work you’ve previously done: the client likes your previous work, and wants you to do the same for their brief – within limitations, of course. You have of course taken care to show only the kind of work you want to do, so that there’s no possibility for misunderstandings. But yet the inevitable happens: as the job progresses, the scope changes, and suddenly you’re being asked to do something that’s either a duplicate of what’s been done before – by somebody else – or worse, a mishmash of incoherent ideas that were clearly a case of design by committee and completely unsuitable for the original subject or brief. Sound familiar? Sadly, this is far too often the state of play in most creative industries, not just photography.

Fast forward a little bit. At the start, we might be idealistic and try to educate or explain to the client why what they are asking for will not yield the results they want; simply, you can’t apply the same approach as before and expect a different outcome. We might argue and offer to work for free to show exactly what we mean; after all, sometimes abstract concepts can be difficult to visualise without an immediate example, and this is what we’re best at right? In the end – we might give up in frustration. We might learn to be wiser further down the road and decline any such jobs that are starting to look as though the outcome may land up being different to what was originally suggested.

Taking a step back, we start asking ourselves why we started down this career path – and remember the satisfaction of outputting something tangible and definable on a regular basis, with the added bonus of feeling the satisfaction of having derived an elegant and aesthetically pleasing solution to usually an open-ended problem. At least a very small part of us likes the recognition, too; and hopefully with it, some sort of financial reward. We begin to harbour dreams that we might be able to hit this high every day, and get paid for it – perhaps not as well as if we were doing something less flexible, but the intellectual rewards make up for it, right? We try. And then reality hits: we’re back to doing the jobs we don’t think necessarily fit the brief because we still need to eat and pay the rent.

Here is the first dangerous tipping point: the more of these jobs you take, the harder it will be for you to get back to the kind of work you initially wanted to do. If all goes well – as well as it can – you will become known for that particular kind of work, and in turn receive more of it. And your ‘creative’ profession will be no more satisfying than the job you left; just more poorly paid, and without the certainty of regular income. On the other hand, if you don’t take the jobs – well, you might get lucky and have things pay off, but you might also get unlucky and be back in your cubicle the following month. Where is the balance? Can there even be balance?

Rationally, we should really be two people: the impartial professional who just gets the job done and executes with competence, skill and importantly no personal emotions biasing judgement – and the passionate artist who puts their heart and soul into ensuring every one of the smallest details is absolutely spot-on perfect. The problem with this is of course barring some sort of psychiatric disorder, there’s simply no way this is possible. Firstly, the kind of people who can actively abide such a rational approach tend not to be risk takers (i.e. won’t take the uncertain independent creative career path) and not usually quite so passionate about anything to begin with. Before you take exception to that: you really need to care to have passion, and you really need to have passion to be exceptional at anything – and none of that is rational at all.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the sensible person isn’t going to get off on the creative part – if anything, that requires a bit of irrationality and nonsense to get there and produce work that’s dramatically different from ‘corporate safe’ expectations to begin with. (Perhaps there’s also a nugget of reason as to why so many corporate driven creative exercises still land up somehow being relatively safe, too.)

As a result, there are really only three kinds of professionals that survive long term in the creative industry: the craftsmen (at best) who do whatever job they’re asked with a reasonable amount of skill and care, and doesn’t hold overly strong personal opinions as to what the output should look like or how it should be done. Barring the kind of unprofessionalism that’s unfortunately frequently seen in developing parts of the world (some people think they can get away with false promises – simply don’t know any better – because they’re not wearing a suit), this kind of creative is the perfect fit for most corporate clients. A safe standard is expected and delivered.

The second kind are the rockstars, who are lucky enough (or strong enough of vision, personality and patron) to get away with insisting on having their way – and pulling it off to great success. There are both extremely few of these personalities and extremely few patrons to support them, because it tends to be a sort of chicken and egg situation: you usually can’t start off a rockstar because you don’t have the track record to make demands, and as a result, you can’t execute what you want, which means future proposals are still unproven, and so on. I suspect you can become a rockstar if you survive being the third and final type of creative, but you can’t begin as one.

The final – binary – type are those who are always going to feel a little uncomfortable. They do the generic and corporate work when they get it, because they aren’t rockstar enough to pick and choose assignments, but don’t get them that often because they aren’t willing to compromise as much as the craftsmen. They’re good enough to occasionally get blank slate assignments, which they relish because it reminds them of why they’re in the profession to begin with; but sadly those only remind them of the stark divide between the two very different types of work they do. We are always making the choice between how much compromise they can accept creatively, and how much they can accept financially – often, these two parameters are mutually exclusive. In the long run, this type lands up turning into either craftsman or rockstar – depending very much on luck and exposure. The binary state is an inherently unstable one and inevitably leads to an emotional rollercoaster – between soaring highs and days where you wake up thinking you’d be better off with a steady pay check, and knowing for sure what to expect.

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’m sitting in the final category. There is work which I try to minimise visibility of online because it is not the work I ultimately want to do; it doesn’t give me creative satisfaction, but it does pay the bills, and consequently, I still accept those assignments. I can’t not show it because the risk-averse businessman in me says that work is work; on the other hand, I can’t show too much of it because I would rather be hired to do what I can instinctively run with rather than have dictated. In the end, I think it boils down to this: I want to be a creative, not an executor. I chose photography because it gives intellectual return on the shortest possible time scale; you have that high of seeing the product again and again, on a regular basis. It isn’t because I enjoy the gadgets or the hardware: it’s because I enjoy what they allow me to do, which is translate imagination into tangibility. Of course, observations in this article apply not just to photography, but pretty much every other creative profession, too; switching genres isn’t going to help. I suppose there’s probably a continuum along which large scale, long term collaborative projects like architecture sit closest to ‘conventional’ careers, and solo performers (direct to end consumer business) are at the opposite extreme.

The only conclusion I can come to is that we’re just along for the ride: all we can do is advance on both fronts and hope that one gains enough notoriety to start dictating terms all the time. The header image is an example of this: I love to shoot gigapixel forests, but the commercial applications aren’t immediately obvious; yet I’ve had commissions for this kind of work which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t shot them in the first place. In short: we can only do what we have to so we can do what we want to. MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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