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Michael Freeman on the business of photography

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I recently caught up with Michael at his home in London. Michael began his photography career in 1971, & in the years since, he’s established a name as one of the most published photographers ever, with well over 100 titles to his name. In more recent years, his lines of instructional photography books have earned him a new & growing audience. Michael & I sat down to talk about the current state of the photography business, whether it’s really doomed, as some say, & where the opportunities might still be found.

…Just as digital photography introduced clipping, then creative businesses introduced the cliff. And you just fall off the edge…

Good to see you again, Michael. What’s been keeping you busy lately?

I just returned from shooting in China and Myanmar, also including a workshop. The Myanmar shoot was for a book to be published at the end of the year called 7 Days in Myanmar, and it’s the latest of a long line of multi-photographer media-event books on the same theme - it all started in Thailand in 1987. There were 30 of us there for a week, and many of us, old friends now, have been meeting up like this for years - the usual suspects, including Steve McCurry, Abbas, Bruno Barbey, Raghu Rai, Mike Yamashita. The workshop was in Yunnan. I remain in two minds about workshops. Everyone’s doing them, and they’ve become rather fashionable. It seemed a natural thing for me to progress to after all these books I’ve written about photography, and with the Open College of the Arts degree course in photography that I’ve written over the years, so I ought to be able to do them. But frankly I’m worried about spending more time writing and talking about what I’m doing than doing it. If the balance gets to be more towards that than actually taking photographs, then it would be the beginning of a slippery slope.

imageMt Popa, Myanmar ©Michael Freeman

Today we’re talking about the photography industry. How did your career first begin?

I grew up in a world where photography was not a serious career. The idea was that you followed a career path. A gap year was unheard of. So I simply did as I was told. I followed the normal schedule, which didn’t leave any room for artistic work, meaning that I went from school to Oxford, where I studied geography. But there, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do so when I left university I went into advertising. This was a time of full employment. You could have any job you wanted, hard though this may be to believe in the present economy - not too much of that now, I’m afraid.

Nevertheless, I was always interested in photography; it’s just that I never saw it as a valid career move. And when I came to make the break, it was interesting that not only my father but also the chairman of the agency were concerned that I would be throwing away a lifetime of education which had led me to the point of having a good job. That was the way it was seen then. But I did it because I felt it is what I needed to do.

Was there a break that helped you establish a name in photography?

There were lots of little breaks. The first break I got was actually being able to leave the agency for over two months to travel up the Amazon, because they gave me a sabbatical – another old term lost to modern business; that’s when they continue to pay you a salary, by the way. To cut a long and too-often-repeated story short, I managed to get an exhibition of my Amazon photographs at the Brazilian Embassy. On their invitation list was the Picture Editor of the Telegraph, who became a client, and the Editor and Picture Editor of Time-Life Books, that was just setting up. Eventually (all this took months), Time-Life used many of the pictures very prominently in the first book of their first series - on the cover, double-trucks, chapter opener. It was a big surprise and kicked me into leaving advertising to become an unemployed but boundlessly hopeful photographer.

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So it meant that I started out with two good clients. And Time-Life were very high at that point. They had these continuity series – they rolled out books every two months in a series. People signed up for them, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The real break was to break through the barrier of Magnum, because at the start they just hired all Magnum photographers, plus a few independents like Pete Turner and Jay Maisel. So my big break came when one of the Magnum photographers doing Athens didn’t produce all that was necessary. With a continuity series, you can’t miss the deadline, so they sent me to do catch-up for two weeks. I came back, they liked the take, and immediately sent me back to keep shooting. So that meant I had a cover and half a book. Then I got another half-book, simply because I was the male half. It was for a series on ethnic minorities, and mine was on the Pathan in the North West Province [of Pakistan]. They had a woman photographer do the women’s bit and I did the men’s bit. There was no other way, with these very strictly Islamic people -  and that was before the current wave of fundamentalism and the American reaction to 9/11. The places I went, you couldn’t go back any more. Then straight after that I got my own book, on the Akha, a hill minority in northern Thailand.

So basically there was a series of breaks, which of course you can never rely on. And it included the Smithsonian Magazine, they were just a few years after starting up, and then not well-known, even though it had been launched by the great Ed Thompson of Life Magazine. I had around three decades of work for them, so that was certainly a big break.

… professional photography is the one way you can reliably expect photography to improve, because you’ve got people working at it constantly…

Do you think such a start in the field of professional photography is possible these days?

Not that start, no, I don’t… What was happening then, that doesn’t happen any more, was a strong demand - a good market - for editorial photography in print. Magazines and books. So there was a circuit that you could trail around and go and see people. You knew who you wanted to see, and you knew the jobs you wanted. And the picture editors and art directors would always see you, even if they’d never heard of you.

But this question makes me think. It boils down to the theme of change, and how you can survive in photography. And it’s an important question because professional photography – which means when you earn a living from it – is the one way you can reliably expect photography to improve, because you’ve got people working at it constantly. But in order to do that you need to have a sponsor. And the sponsors for editorial were the big magazines. Now they’re on the way out and I don’t know how the internet model is going to work for them, because I don’t think they’re going to get enough advertising revenue. They don’t know either. Unfortunately it means that the budgets for funding big stories aren’t really there any more.

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Dress inspection for Palace Guards, Athens, Greece ©Michael Freeman

…When people say ‘I’d like to be a photographer,’ or people say ‘I’d like to be an actor,’ they mean a successful one…

What do you think it is about the photography career that draws so many people to it, generation after generation?

Well, for a start, everyone thinks it’s a great lifestyle! You don’t have regular hours, don’t have to work in an office, just go out and have fun. And your creative ego gets stroked all the time. Who wouldn’t like to do that? [laughs] Basically people associate photography with a pleasurable activity they do when they’ve got time. Any creative business, if you’re good at it, is of course absorbing, and in fact it can be obsessional.

But do you think photography is no different to other jobs? That it requires hard work and a business mind and just getting things done?

Well, it’s a creative business so it’s very much down to individual personality and talent. When people say ‘I’d like to be a photographer,’ or people say ‘I’d like to be an actor,’ they mean a successful one, like the ones they see. Well, we’d all like to be that. That goes for any business. So there’s a mis-match between what they see that looks enjoyable, and the professional side of the business. But you have to be talented at it. And if you’re not, you maybe should consider something else. Nobody likes to think that, and nobody likes to be told it, but it happens to be true. In the end, whatever activity you’re in, for all your egoism – and photographers are full of ego, but no more so than actors or writers – you know that there’s a pecking order of sorts, however much you like to find a niche for yourself that’s somehow out of the way. So you have to be good enough. I don’t know where that talent comes from, but it definitely can be improved upon. That’s why I write books on photography, because I think talent can be encouraged and developed. Still, there must be something there to start with.

What are the big changes in photography that you’ve witnessed during your career? Obviously the big one is the transition from film to digital.

Well, is it? How big is it? And do you mean all aspects of photography? It’s a very big question when you put it like that. Obviously digital has had a huge impact, in two ways. One is the digital operation of the camera, which means that you can take a picture at no cost. And you can take it on any device now. Another reason is that digital means dissemination of photography. It’s the perfect form for the internet.

How about the transition from print to online publishing? How has that affected things?

It’s made life very difficult, simply because the business model has changed. The net result is that there is no longer the same market for photographs in print that there was, and as for the online market, the business model hasn’t been worked out yet, so people don’t want to pay.

Remember the internet came with a built-in idea of the freedom of information, as well as the freedom of everything! [laughs] So it started in an idealistic way but has stayed idealistic in its firm opposition to paying for anything.

…What’s happened is that more and more people are expecting to be able to make a living out of professional photography…

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Haing Ngor, from the film The Killing Fields, returned to Cambodia in 1989 ©Michael Freeman

Do you think photography itself has changed?

Of course it’s changed. Everything changes. You expect photography to particularly because it’s technology-based. Also, the distribution is influenced by technology, I mean the internet.

It’s changed structurally. It’s changed very much commercially. But less so aesthetically, if that’s the right word. The reason I’m saying this is that the old masters in photography – Cartier-Bresson and that – if anything, they’re more revered now than they ever were.

The structural change is sheer volume. Of photographs being taken, and of people using cameras. This impacts on the commercial side, in that we’ve now had several decades of high-volume commissioned photography in colour, so obviously a lot of the things that hadn’t been seen that people were being sent out to photograph, now have been photographed. Think of a picture editor doing a story on Angkor. Why the hell would you want to send anyone to Angkor? It’s been done. And it’s going to be damn difficult to find a new way to do anything about it unless something happens there, like a new discovery.

Another thing that’s changed in photography is that it’s less hierarchical. Photography used to be divided into professionals; amateurs mainly in camera clubs who tended to be boys who liked boys’ toys; and everyone else who just took family snaps. It’s crudely put, but that’s the way it was. Now it’s much more democratic, because for various reasons, millions and millions of people are interested in photography, and interested in more than just taking family snaps.

It all really brings me to one thing. Although there are no figures available for this, and I don’t see how there could be any, it may not be so different now from, let’s say 30 years ago. Despite all the anguish and moaning that goes on about being a professional photographer isn’t possible any more, what are we talking about? Sustaining the number of potential professional photographers coming out of colleges at present-day rates? Of course not. What’s happened is that more and more people are expecting to be able to make a living out of professional photography. We don’t have any figures, but anecdotally it must be many times an increase since when I started in the ‘70s. You go back to the ‘70s, the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and look at the number of people in all the various kinds of photography out there trying to make a living, it’s many many times more now. So it’s just possible that the same number of people are being sustained in photography as were, and that what we’re looking at is a false expectation that the market for photographers – which comes from the market for photography – is able to support an ever-growing, exponential number of people. Obviously it’s not.

Do you think photographers should face up to change?

Of course they should! Everyone else has to. If you’ve spent your life or even a short part of your life doing certain kinds of work as a photographer, and suddenly the rug gets pulled from under your feet, then naturally you’re going to feel disturbed. But all of this is logical. There are no ghastly surprises here.

…You have to be inventive to find new business. And it’s always been like that…

Would you agree with the old adage applied to other industries that in challenges there are also opportunities?

Yes there are. Look at the change in the media. There’s no less consumption of media by the overall retail public. In fact, it’s likely there’s an increase in the amount of time people spend absorbing professionally-produced media these days. But it’s coming from a different direction. It means the old media are going to get less money, and the new ones have to find a way to make it work.

Normal market economics ensures that only profitable things stay around. You have to be inventive to find new business. And it’s always been like that. You know, there was a time when magazines were new and people taking pictures for them were doing something new. And back then, there were people they’d say to: “Hey, do you know how to take a picture? Here’s a camera, go and take some pictures.” [laughs] Seriously, that’s how many big names from the 1930s got started.

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One of Michael’s latest photography titles

To earn a living in photography, people have to value your photographs enough to pay for them. What’s wrong with that? You can’t complain – as I see some people basically doing – that the market’s draining away, the profits that newspapers and magazines are making is less, and they’re taking it out on the photographer. Well, put yourself in the position of someone running one of those businesses. I’ve been on that side. It’s only profit that makes things go round. Or somebody’s largesse. But in the end it’s got to come out of the monetary pool of this planet.

Where’s it all headed?

I think it’s more useful to ask what you could do in photography and make a living from it. Anything that involves travel photography is a seriously bad idea commercially. Because it’s what everyone wants to do! I get emails all the time where people say ‘Could you advise me, I’m going to give up my job in IT and become a photographer, please tell me how to do it.’ And I say, please think twice. If you can keep photography as an interest – I don’t want to diminish it by saying hobby – but by being something that gives you an outlet for self-expression, while you have a job, do it. Because it’ll be very difficult to do that without a job.

Then think logically. What is there for which people will always want to call up a professional photographer and pay them to do it? Rather than doing it themselves, or asking a secretary, or a friend, or seeing what’s free online. The answer is, anything current. All current activities can be employment for professional photographers in one way or another. So what’s current? News is current. A demand for sports photography will always be there. Fashion photography will always be there. Advertising photography that features products will always be there. New cars to be photographed. New jewellery, watches. There’s a demand for that.

Next is what a professional can offer, a service that is already in place. So being a professional photographer is like being a lawyer or a garage mechanic or a doctor. Can you do this on Monday? Yes.

Next is a guarantee of a successful result. So if someone is launching a new car, they need it to look good. And they need to know that it will look good by the deadline.

And finally, think about extending what you offer. In particular, I mean writing or speaking. There’s a long history in magazine publishing of using photographs to tell a story. I’ve just published a book on it, called “The Photographer’s Story.” People like stories, they like to be entertained. So rather than just saying I know how to take a nice picture, think about how to put together a set of pictures that’s going to spend longer entertaining or informing people than a single one would.

Would you say there’s no future for photography as it exists now?

Well I wouldn’t say that. Some things fall away, other things take over. You’ve only got to look at the history of photography to see that that has been happening since the word go. So it’s always been a concern.

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I would hate people to think that just because it all worked for me and some of my friends, that we somehow grew up in a Golden Era. Hell, it was tough even then, though in a different way. You really had to struggle to get a job because you had to prove yourself, and to take the work away from somebody else. And there were always new things happening. Books, for example. The production costs have really gone down, so it used to be the case where colour photography was expensive to reproduce in print. But as it became cheaper, more books could be published. So there was a bigger opportunity for doing books. Print is not dying yet. And nor is it denuding the world of trees. They grow trees to print books, they grow faster than you can plant them. [laughs] So it’s not necessary to go out and buy a Kindle. It’s still a huge business, and there’s a lot of publishers and they still want books. Unlike with magazines which pretty well know what they want, book publishers are always open to suggestions. Anyone can go to a publisher and say, ‘Here’s an idea for a book.’ And stand a chance of them saying, ‘OK.’

I had lunch with a publisher friend who I hadn’t seen for a long time, and I was fascinated that his company is still commissioning photographers to do projects which take one year, two years. Those photographers are not then going out and buying a Bentley, but they’re getting paid reasonable amounts. And if they are able to travel and shoot and make it profitable, they’ve got work. So I’ve got actual, specific examples of people getting decent jobs in a business that a lot of people think is dead, because they’re offering the right thing. The right skill. And they have initiative.

…Photography is for consumption. It always has a purpose…

Among the doom and gloom online, some people blame the decreasing value of photography on a public that spends less time to read and absorb material, that attention spans are getting shorter, that the reading public or the media is becoming shallower, etc. What do you think?

I don’t agree. Quite the opposite. First of all, photographers have a particular sense of the value of photography in general, and their photographs in particular, and they’re not to be trusted on that very personal, egotistical opinion. Photography is for consumption. It always has a purpose. Whether in the form of art to inspire and question, or in the form of news photography to deliver an image of what’s happening, or in advertising to persuade, or in fashion to make more desirable. And it’s generally been dealt out through the mass media at the mass market. So photographs, once you’ve sent them out there, they’re going to be liked, disliked or ignored, depending on how good they are.

Now, this assumption that people don’t pay attention any more – I don’t agree. Not all people are always interested in photography. It’s only ever been some people. The fact is though, that the numbers are greater now, with many more photographs being pushed out, being seen for a shorter time. But I certainly see more people coming into the world of photography in terms of either intending to take pictures or wanting to enjoy and absorb them than ever before. One proof is something that’s taken me by surprise – publishing about photography. I wrote my first book on photography in the 1980s because a publisher wanted one. So I did it and it sold very well, and we did a few more to follow up. But until digital came along, I always thought that was it. That there was nothing else to write about in photography, it being a limited market. But digital’s totally changed that. So I see vastly increased numbers of people – millions and millions of people – very interested in photography, wanting to read about it, wanting to learn more about it, having opinions about it. Whether we like Flickr and these other sites or not, there are huge numbers of people spending a lot of time on them, posting pictures, looking at other people’s pictures, talking about them, criticising them. So it’s a matter of numbers. The number of people that have become involved in photography and with cameras has increased so much, that there are more people than ever before interested in photography in the way that photographers would like them to be.

…being realistic in photography means that there’s only ever going to be enough business for a certain number of people…

So let’s say someone is coming out of a college or has decided to quit their day-job and go ahead with a photography career. What would your advice be to them?

First of all, be realistic. Understand the dynamics of the business you’re in. One problem is that photography is a creative business, and many people entering it for some reason don’t feel they need to do the same kind of due diligence that they would in any normal 9-to-5 job. Well of course you have to! If you want to support yourself doing photography, then you have to take a business-like attitude. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to become an accountant. You just have to understand the principles of supply and demand. What are the markets for what you want to do? Can you fit into that market? So you’ve got to know the market, and within it the opportunities. You’ve got to be able to find and see those. You have to be able to deliver what you do, at a level of skill and expertise that is worthy of selling in that market. So that’s the same as anything. There’s nothing strange about it.  So don’t moan. And don’t expect anything to change because you think you deserve it more than anyone else. I think being realistic in photography means that there’s only ever going to be enough business for a certain number of people - fewer than there are now competing in the market.

So would you then say that the advice to someone starting out today would be no different to years gone by?

The markets have changed. The dynamics have changed. Too many people in the business and wanting to make a living from photography. But the basic principles are still the same. You’ve first got to be good. It’s a creative business! If you’re doing something more predictable and more logical, like accounting or marketing, then you can do your job without being very good. That’s a terrible thing to say, I know, but there’s a lower slope of toleration in most jobs, and you know this because you come across people in shops and businesses, anywhere you interact with people selling something, and you think, ‘They’re not very good at their job, they don’t even know what they’re selling.’ But that’s tolerated in logical businesses. In creative businesses, it’s not. It’s very simple. Just as digital photography introduced clipping, then creative businesses introduced the cliff. And you just fall off the edge.

…the more you do something, the more you get asked to do it, and the more adept you become at it…

Thanks for the time to talk, Michael. What’s next for you?

I’m looking for a successor to “The Tea Horse Road” [Michael’s most recent book of photography]. I do have a project in mind. It’s a global one. In the meantime, there’s the usual day-to-day things, like preparing for the four projects coming up in Asia, so I’m more than happy to spend what we laughingly call summer here.

Why so many projects in Asia?

I suppose because I’ve always liked doing exotic and unusual things, so I love travelling. Yes, I know I just said it’s a very bad idea to think of travel photography as a business these days. There was a time not so long ago when people wanted to see what places looked like. Now, everyone knows what places look like. [laughs] But I was attracted by the exotic. And that was fuelled by clients like Time-Life, who sent me around. It was after Time-Life sent me to Thailand on a three-month assignment, that I found I had an empathy with things Asian. So there’s always been some value in it for me in going to Asia. And, practically speaking, the more you do something, the more you get asked to do it, and the more adept you become at it.

Michael’s website is www.michaelfreemanphoto.com

My website is www.newchinaimages.com

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