Why did I leave the relative security of the Civil Service after more than thirty years to try to make my own way as a photographer? Why have I started blogging? Have I completely lost all touch with reality?
Well, the answer to the first one might take some time. About two years ago, I was passed over for promotion in the Day Job (no pun intended). The organisation where I worked, the UK water industry regulator Ofwat, operated a policy of only appointing people to specific jobs rather than the traditional Civil Service pattern of grades and clear promotion routes. The reasons for this are long and complex and really only of interest to industrial relations historians and those who bemoan the passing of Old Ways, though I have to say that it was an imposed change by an autocratic Director General rather than a generally accepted Good Thing. My problem was that my skills set increasingly didn’t match what the organisation wanted, but one job had been telegraphed as coming up in the near future which fitted me to a tee. The job was “European Policy Co-Ordinator”, and it was a mixture of the practical and the investigative. One minute, I could have been researching the latest developments in the European water industry, and translating or making an abstract of an EU report on water and environmental issues; or I could be setting up meetings for Very Important People; the next minute, I could be telling a Very Important Person “The French rail strike has stopped the Eurostars to Brussels via Lille, but I can get you there via Amsterdam Schipol and the Benelux express train – you’re booked on the 6pm flight…”
Right up my street. But I had to be certain I’d get it, so when the job was finally advertised, I set to with a vengeance to mug up on the subject, think carefully about the job, and the interview, and what I needed to do to demonstrate competence. So when it came to the interview, I had all the facts at my fingertips; I was up to speed on my subject, I had a plan for Day One, Week One and Month One, and I had some killer questions for the interview panel. I dislike job interviews, I’ve never really done well in them, so I went into this one as well-prepared as I could possibly be.
I did the interview of my life. I had an answer for everything, the interview board seemed very pleased with what I said, I was eloquent and sharp and on top of all the questioning.
I didn’t get the job. At the feedback session, the Team Leader I would have been working for told me that the board had been impressed. They all agreed that I was the strongest internal candidate out of a field of two. But they decided to appoint someone from Brussels who’d already been doing this sort of job for five years and came with a full address book. “So,” I said, “the fact that I’ve been doing my existing job diligently for thirteen years and displayed loyalty to the organisation actually counted against me?” “Basically, yes.” was the reply.
At that point, I realised that the organisation had nothing further to offer me and I resolved to get away as soon as I could. My talent for photography had already been recognised by many people; and within the year I was to win the first international Labour Photographer of the Year contest. My direction seemed obvious – but it would take some time to get myself set up and ready to make the move.
Fast forward two years. It was becoming obvious both to me and my line managers that I had lost my mojo when it came to the Day Job. We had recruited two bright young things to help carry forward the work and they were outshining me on a daily basis (and why not? It’s the privilege of youth.) (Oh god, when did I get this old?). The organisation was changing, heading in directions that seemed to me politically perilous. The national feeling, manipulated by politicians and their supporters in sections of the British press, was against public service. And the May 2010 General Election effectively put the Conservative Party into power, and they embarked on a programme of cuts and austerity that would impact severely my ability to pay my way and possibly threaten my entire livelihood. I was feeling threatened, out of my depth and increasingly unhappy with almost everything. Finally, my pension projection showed me that even if I worked all the way to retirement and a bit beyond, I’d still have to work after retirement to make ends meet. So why not jump now and make a head-start on that instead of trying to start a new direction in my middle sixties? With luck, I could have a photography career of some twenty years if I started now rather than later.
So I jumped. People were shocked – after all, I was by now Ofwat’s longest-serving full-time member of staff (and only one part-timer with more time than me), having been there almost at the beginning of the organisation. People said to me “You can’t leave – you’re part of the furniture!”, and then boggled when I told them that the trouble with being part of the furniture was that people tended to sit on you. Privately, various people looked ahead themselves and then sidled up to me and said “You’re doing the right thing”. One of them was our Chairman.
So – here I am. I’ve got all my kit sorted out (pretty much). I’ve got some stunning new material in the can, ready for me to make prints to sell. I’ve got bookings for selling prints, orders in progress, a book deal under negotiation, a cool-looking website up and running, directory entries and local advertising in place, and even a booking for a birthday party next weekend. So why start blogging as well?
Well, the one thing I miss from the Day Job is the regular contact with the outside world. It’s very nice to work from home – green fields, green working (“Move electrons, not people” says the Other Half), being on hand to receive deliveries, not getting stuck in traffic (most of the time) – but days can go by when the only community I mix with is Radio 4. Facebook’s all very well, but it’s very reactive. You can spend a lot of time commenting on friends’ postings, and many of my Facebook friends are old trade union comrades, and so the conversation tends to the political.
Now as I said, one of the reasons I gave up the Day Job was the politics of the public sector. It’s not that I’ve lost any interest in politics, but now as a self-employed person I have to put The Work first. Some of The Work will still involve current political activity – after all, photographing the trade union movement in Birmingham as been one of the themes of my photography – but taking and providing photographs For The Cause isn’t going to buy baby a new bonnet (or a new lens). And this is another reason for this blog – to reach out to an audience that may be interested in the wider range of my work, whether that’s the trade union coverage, my railway photography or the landscape and architectural work.
A lot of what I’ve done recently has centred on a trip I made last month to Poland and Germany. The aim of this trip was to get pictures of steam trains in the snow, as my previous pictures in that genre are now eight years old, technically inferior and have already had some public exposure. That part of the plan fell flat – I had one morning of wet snow in Poland that turned to rain, and there was a bit of snow (but not much comparatively) on top of Mount Brocken in the German Harz mountains, and that was it. But there were pluses – the opportunity for night photography, some wonderful old towns (particularly Görlitz and Zittau), a lot of atmospheric industrial decay and access to a number of engineering workshops which gave me some excellent reportage shots.
I’ve already shown some of the outcomes from this trip at two model railway exhibitions where I have been attending to try to sell prints, and I’ve been following up some leads to get more of this material placed elsewhere.
I also shot a trade fair report on the Focus on Imaging show at Birmingham’s NEC for a digital media course at one of Birmingham’s metropolitan universities (which also involved examining lots of 3-D technology and talking to experts in panoramic photography). And as I said, I have a paying gig coming up this weekend – of which, more later.