10 things learned from 10 years as a freelance photographer, September 2016

Before Instagram, the iPhone and the global financial crisis, I boarded a plane for the US to begin my freelance career, 10 years ago to the day.

That was the year Facebook went public, Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, The God Delusion was published, Richard Hammond crashed a jet-powered car, London was hit by a tornado and the Chinese river dolphin became extinct. Yet, some things remain. Here are 10 constants of freelance life in the ever-changing professional landscape.


1. It is about who you know

The freelance market is crowded but it can also be a lonely place. You spend a lot of time pursuing your own work with your own energy and money. It’s about contacts, sure, but actual friends are more important. They drive you forward and help you keep going when it’s tough. They give grounding when you are far away from home immersed in work.

You need self-motivation to overcome obstacles but at the end of the day you need people to share the joys and sorrows. If you find success, people will chase you and want a piece of you but in the quiet times they fly away like vultures chasing the next bit of meat. Invest in family and friends whose support is not based on your professional productivity.

2. Stay focussed

Failure is being successful at the wrong things. Distraction lurks at your fingertips and it’s essential to keep your main aim in focus. A few hours a week, over a year becomes a significant piece of work. Carving out the time and keeping it sacrosanct is key.

A good friend told me “sometimes you have to say no to good things”. They are right.

3. Find your niche

At the Olympics, millions watched a man ride a dancing horse to win a gold medal. That is niche. Other athletes spent four years preparing for a sub-10 second dash. They became world class because they found their niche and worked at that. In advertising & politics, like sport, it’s all about targeted (niche) campaigns.

4. Beware the carrot danglers

How many times have I been lured by emails starting “we love your work!”. Talk of TV shows, lucrative commissions or global publications. They dangle the proverbial carrot to lure us along like a metaphoric ass. But these people are clouds without rain, promising much but delivering nothing.

Beware of gushing emails but be open to the unexpected. There are invitations that seem too good  but are, in fact, true. Like the paid commission to stay on remote St Kilda, or winning funding for 8 weeks in Tibet or the exhibition in The State Hermitage in Russia. All real, unexpected and brilliant.

5. Be offline, often

Stay here for now. Offline space allows thoughts to evolve as they are intended, to converse and imagine without the interruption of a phone or email or the eternal stream of social media updates. It saps our attention and impacts our relationships. Switching to airplane mode on a train or walking is a liberation from our addiction to information.


6. Approaching open & closed doors

Leaping through open doors can be stressful but it is far better than looking unhappily at closed ones. Opportunities appear quickly and are soon gone. Every day I see opportunities appear and I have to decide if I am brave enough to proceed.  If I don’t, the game is over.

Every Monday I write a plan. By Friday it is covered in new action points or tears or blood. Things never, EVER, go as I was would expect them. Week by week, my ideas gain momentum or are refined as new possibilities open up. Persistence has proved more vital than artistic skill in finding a path through.

7. Do the paperwork

Boring but vital. We need to eat, dress and sleep which requires we turn a profit. People don’t rush to pay and they won’t bother at all if we don’t keep up to date with invoices. Every trip requires days of applications, invitations, email and visas. Do it right and it’s exhilarating and meaningful.


8. Beware copyright infringers

People take pictures without asking, then refuse to pay. Then even call you names for pointing it out. You can’t take a puffin without permission, so why take a picture? (the law is more nuanced than this).

The best, most flagrant example was an Italian news site that removed a series of my portraits from a UK newspaper on the same day and promoted it as their own. They were online but that doesn’t mean they are public domain.

9. Collaborate

‘No man is an island, unless his name is Madagascar’, Phil Kay once said. We need other people, whether we admit it or not- the subjects, editors, families or the strangers who appear at the right time when your car has flipped off the road in the highlands.

Being freelance provides a way to navigate your own worklife but only if you find meaningful and brilliant people to work with. We have to look beyond ourselves to grow. People who share your vision but I also seek out people who will openly disagree, when necessary. They have taught me a lot.

10. Take the long view

We are works in progress, give yourself another 10 years. The industry feeds off new work and new photographers but don’t let yourself be consumed by short-term gains. Have a 50 year plan- why are you doing this? You will most likely still be working when you are 90.