Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

What a difference a year makes

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I’m jumping onto the end-of-year bandwagon of reviewing the twelve months just gone and looking forward to the next one. It’s now just over a year since I gave up my full-time employment to take a chance with the business of photography; and although it hasn’t been an unqualified success, I still don’t regret it for one minute. My occasional returns to Ofwat for leaving dos just continues to reinforce that view. From what I hear, it’s now reached the stage where people are leaving who are not being forced to; that’s a pretty damning indictment of any organisation. And from what I saw on my last visit, the London office (as I said at my leaving do, “a short brown nose away from the Seat of Power”) is, as anticipated, turning into a London HQ in all but name. The CEO seems to spend as little time as possible in Birmingham, and morale is bumping along the ground amongst people at all levels. Yes, whatever happens in the next year, I did well to get out when I did.

The situation in the public sector generally looks little better, with PCS and the Government set on a collision course over pensions and continuing misinformation being laid on thickly. I’m not going to start any arguments on this, but I’ll point out one thing that really does irritate me; that is the number of otherwise intelligent people who crop up in the media who say “We are all living longer”.

That is just totally untrue.

What is true is that, on average, life expectancy is increasing. But that’s not the same as “everyone living longer”. It means that more people are departing this life at later ages. But within those numbers, there must be some interesting variations. I understand that male life expectancy in central Glasgow, for example, has moved on very little from age 67 in the past few years. (If anyone has more accurate or up-to-date information, I’d welcome correction.) This raises the prospect that in one part of the UK at least, the average male citizen won’t live long enough to draw any state pension if this inequality in health outcomes isn’t addressed successfully.

Interestingly, the government has all the data on this. The key study on public health and work is called the “Whitehall II” study, because it takes as its study group a cohort of civil servants of all grades based in London. This study has consistently shown that the further down the pecking order you are in any organisation, the worse your health is likely to be, from infectious diseases to stress-related illnesses. This study is well-known, highly regarded and is considered to be one of the key works in the public health arena. Yet the Government is ignoring its findings and (almost) concealing it from the general discussion in health, age and pensions. I wonder why that could be?

And in the meantime, I constantly hear supposedly clever people saying “We are all living longer”. which either suggests to me that they (or the people pulling their strings) have their own agenda; or that a very large number of people are too stupid to understand what the word “average” means. That’s depressing, whichever way you look at it.

Enough of that. Let’s look at other areas of disappointment, such as the profession of photography. I can honestly say that this has been a commercial disaster for me; a wedding reception and a 16th birthday party have been all the paying work I’ve had this year. I did manage to get some script editing work for a video company, which was good; but given that it was quite specialist, it’s unlikely to give rise to more of the same in a hurry. This hasn’t been for want of advertising; and it hasn’t been for want of me putting myself Out There. I’m contracted as a freelancer to an online estate agency, an on-line bed & breakfast booking agent and a freelance writer’s agency, but none of these have turned in any work in the six months or so that I’ve been on their books. The only good thing I can say is that it’s not just me; I was talking to an established wedding photographer during the summer, and he was saying that he’d had half the business up to then that he’d normally expect. So it’s hardly surprising that an unestablished name wouldn’t be attracting the business. And I now have competition even within my village; another photographer has started advertising herself for portraits, weddings and so on. I decided that the best thing to do there was to cut my losses, so I contacted her and did a deal to swap leads – if I get any further enquiries about weddings, bar mitzvahs and christenings, I’ll pass them to her, whilst if she gets any enquiries on corporate, architecture or events, she’ll pass them to me. I suspect she’ll do better out of that deal.

Print sales haven’t been brilliant, either, though I realised early on that that was a market that would take some breaking into. What I have decided is that I need to raise my profile as a railway photographer, as well as offer customers something a bit more conventional than a mounted A3 picture of a Polish locomotive shed. So I set to and produced my first photobook a month or so ago (as I said in my last blog). I’m very pleased with the results, though sales have been disappointing. Partly, that’s down to limited exposure, and partly down to the fact that a lot of the best work I did this year was on my Polish/German trip in February, and British railway enthusiasts are incredibly insular about this sort of thing. I’ve been promised a magazine review in the Spring, though, and I’m hoping that will bring some cheer on that front. As for one-to-one sales, I feel I need more than just the one book; if people are put off by the content, then I need to get The Soul of the Machine 2010 out there as soon as I can complete (and afford!) it, so that I have a range of books for customers to choose from. Once they have the first in a series, I’m hoping that the collecting bug will take over – and to be honest, the reaction I’ve had is that the images are very good, it’s just the subject matter. One bloke actually said to me “There’s not enough Great Western in it”, which  shows the problem I’m up against.

Work continues on The Lost Railway; chapter two is now written, and as soon as I post this blog I’ll fire up the scanner to get more pictures from the dim and distant 1970s digitised. The interesting thing about this exercise is how much information I’m able to glean from these old pictures now I can get them blown up way beyond anything I could ever achieve in the darkroom. And some of them are coming out as nice pictures in their own right – something I’ll have to bear in mind when I get around to compiling The Soul of the Machine – the early years!

Class 37 370 at New Mills Central, 1972

Meanwhile, I shall most likely have to come up with a new way of earning a crust in the New Year. And events keep happening: for instance, I had to have a new clutch in the car this month, and seeing as Saab are now in protective receivership because of GM wrecking the sale deal with the Chinese, I had to pay for the parts up front, a fortnight before the work was actually done. But seeing as the old clutch was the original and the car’s now over the 145k mark in terms of mileage, I suspect this one will last for quite a while.

Still, I do feel strangely upbeat about my photography. All the pundits say that if you have a niche, you should exploit it; and I also have some competition results that I’m waiting for. Up to six of my pictures have been shortlisted in the Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition, and I recently put an entry into the annual competition run by the Center for Railroad Photography and Art in the USA, which received a very favourable comment. So the New Year might just start with some good news!

I’ll leave you with an image I made on a visit to Lichfield a few days ago that I’m really pleased with. Perhaps it’s some sort of metaphor for the year ahead… Best wishes to all for 2012.


Gargoyle, Lichfield Cathedral



Written by robertday154

December 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm

One Response

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  1. Absolutely fabulous picture of the gargoyle. And think of the skill of the people who built it!

    Working for yourself is hard but I don’t think I could go back to having a regular job unless it was a dream job, and that isn’t going to happen. I do everything my way, maybe a little obsessive-compulsive but no way am I going to let someone tell me “it’s good enough.” It’s good enough when I say so!

    We just have to keep trying to adapt to the times, and carry on…better luck in 2012!

    Find an Outlet

    December 30, 2011 at 5:15 pm

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