Snowdon for EACH

“So which is the challenge, Ryan? Snowdon, or thirty-six hours of Neil’s company?” – Anita Little

As many of you will know, at the beginning of August I hiked up Snowdon with Neil Timms, in support of East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices.

This is just a short post, intended to say “thank you” to every single person who donated to the cause. This morning I was proud to give a total of £743 (online and offline donations combined). Considering the short notice at which we began our fundraising, Neil and I have both been overwhelmed by such generosity, which has come from our friends, colleagues, contacts and a fair few people we have yet to actually meet.

It’s lovely of you all – and obviously, EACH greatly appreciate your help.

Here are a few photographs from the day. Thanks to Neil (@neiletimms) for the idea, for driving us there and for his excellent company. (No, really. Not once did he swear, or complain, or insult me…)

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One Year Old: Art in the Underbelly

The following article was published earlier this month in a birthday newspaper to celebrate the first year of Art in the Underbelly at Norwich’s Rumsey Wells pub…

It may be said that Art in the Underbelly’s beginnings were, to use Luke Emery’s own words, comparatively humble. It may not be said that the venue has ever lacked ambition. In the opening months of the Underbelly, a cluster of extremely impressive local artists displayed their work, and the venue, like many other artistic spaces in Norwich, quickly began to develop a strong reputation.

As an exhibiting artist, there are a number of reasons for my appreciation of the Underbelly. Exhibition spaces are seldom so unique, atmospheric or quirky, or indeed so small. I consider it tremendous that Norwich now has a dedicated artistic venue in a pub cellar. Opening nights at the Underbelly have a wonderfully lively atmosphere – owing to the intimate space and the downstairs bar – that would be simply impossible to replicate elsewhere in the city. It is a testament to Luke’s rigorous input as curator, meanwhile, that the exhibitions have such a consistently strong sense of cohesion – essential to a venue of its size. Needless to say, when I was first shown around the Underbelly, one year ago, with a view to my exhibition, it is safe to say that I did not need to be asked twice.

I regard David Drake’s exhibition as an excellent beginning to the Underbelly’s second year. As the work on display has always been of a high standard, it is tremendous to observe the venue’s richly-deserved increasing popularity. Hats off to the Rumsey Wells for opening the Underbelly, to Luke for his exhaustive efforts, and to my fellow past, present and future exhibiting artists. Happy birthday to the Underbelly indeed.

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Full-time vs. part-time…

Occasionally, I chance to note comments from some fellow photographers, to the effect that full-time photographers are, generally speaking (and always generally speaking), of superior quality to those who hold down part-time jobs. I have also noted instances in which this observation has been used by photographers to persuade potential clients of their suitability for commissioned work.

If I may, I should like to register my disapproval of this line of thought, on the simple grounds that full-time photographers whose work is genuinely worthy of attention are seldom so obtuse, or so unsure of their work as to promote themselves by comparing themselves to other photographers.

The argument goes, it seems, that everyday familiarity with one’s work increases one’s degree of knowledge and experience, producing a cumulative effect which (hopefully) maintains and improves the quality of the photographer’s output. It feels a little absurd to quarrel with this point – achieving such a position is an ambition of my own – but there is a generalisation inherent within it which, for the sake of clarity and for the careers of aspiring photographers, must be challenged.

As I have contemplated this article, one or two points have become apparent: there is absolutely no shame in taking on part-time work alongside photography. To the contrary, it can actually provide tremendous benefits. It is also worth adding that taking on the career full-time can have a number of detrimental effects.

Imagine for a moment that I – one such aspiring photographer – stopped my work as a barman, to focus on my photographic career. I could do it, and I am confident that I have the ability and a growing degree of knowledge with which to do it reasonably well. Why, then, have I not done so? Well, taking one’s career on full-time can, as many artists in many fields will attest, involve financial pressures, which in turn lead to taking on work for which one is either not sufficiently skilled, or not actually inclined towards. Neither of these are helpful situations to be in: art (and photography in particular) produced without expertise, enjoyment or enthusiasm often exhibits the lack of these attributes. Furthermore, if I were to shadow another, more established photographer (as I currently do with the excellent Mike Harrington), the time spent doing so would be far more of a risk than if I had a guaranteed income. On these grounds, I think my time at present is better spent learning without the financial pressure of having just one source of income. I recently received a heartening approbation of this attitude from Ian McKinnon-Evans, creative director of advertising agency The Point, who remarked that this way of moving forward was brave, and would be beneficial in the long-term – minimising the risk of an early negative reputation.

For the time being, then, I am quite prepared to combine my efforts in photography with the additional, part-time work that I do. (Work which, by the way, will allow me to invest in better and better equipment in the coming months.)

This issue raises another important point, however. I am convinced that my part-time work has actually been a firmly positive influence on my photographic output. My work has significantly developed qualities such as my assertiveness, my confidence in interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds, and my ability to contribute towards a convivial atmosphere. These skills are as transferable as anything I learned during my degree, and each of them has proved of the utmost importance to my photography.

In short, then, while I do agree that full-time photographers may well – generally speaking – have an edge in terms of experience, by no means does it necessarily follow that they are either more knowledgeable or more effective in their work. I have questioned people in the past for seriously forwarding this argument, and I would advise all photographers in my position to do the same. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

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Laura By The Sea (and Lego…)

It was my pleasure, last week, to photograph a set of jewellery produced by Norfolk artist Laura Ball. Like a great many product shoots, it required various qualities: a creative approach, a clear notion of strong composition and an ability to think and act quickly, along with a meticulous attention to detail borne in mind at all times. (The requisite equipment goes without saying.) Of all the aspects of the shoot from which I took pleasure and learned, however, nothing proved more of a delight, or more useful, than the numerous applications of Lego in delivering successful images…

Laura specialises in the creation of jewellery, from ear-rings to cufflinks, fashioned from fragments of vintage crockery and glass collected from the Norfolk and Suffolk coastlines. (You can find her website here.) This particular shoot was intended for promotional use, including a poster, so it was imperative to prepare and conduct the shoot to the highest standard possible for the available budget.

Shooting the products on a white background, with studio lighting, was the simple part: a question of buying some white board (with a glossy finish) and shutting out the natural light in my house. Setting up the lighting was slightly more of a challenge: practising with a model Lego parrot on the preceding day enabled me to work out the required distances and angles to produce even light and accurate colours.

This shoot was intended to maintain a similar theme to Laura’s other shoots, with her friend and up-and-coming photographer Paul Strowger, in which her products have often been photographed alongside vintage cups and ice cream to create bright, leisurely images, appropriate to Laura’s vintage jewellery. This time, the jewellery was photographed alongside iced fairy cakes, freshly made by Laura – which, obviously, brought its own challenges. The heat generated by the photographic lights caused the icing to begin melting out of shape within two or three minutes, so it was vital to compose the shots both fastidiously and fast. Again, we found that pieces of Lego proved absolutely ideal for manipulating necklace beads into symmetrical positions around the cakes, as well as for discreetly propping up earrings. (I couldn’t recommend Lego to photographers with any greater enthusiasm…)

It was, I found, an enormously enjoyable shoot. Although I usually photograph outdoor environments and people, this ‘studio’ shoot (set up in my living room, by the way) brought its own challenges – it was excellent to prepare for something new, implementing one or two ideas learned from assisting and observing Mike Harrington, a sterling locally-based product photographer – and it was also excellent to hear from Laura that I’d done the job well. Here are the results…


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March for the Alternative: An Alternative View

The March for the Alternative demonstration in London at the weekend was – make no mistake, and shame upon the UK national media for failing to recognise this – a triumph of amicable, considerate, humorous, imaginative and inclusive protest. It was angry, for sure, but focused, and there was a palpable sense of unity among those in attendance. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly child-friendly – as well as OAP-friendly – and it seemed that the engagement and enjoyment were etched into the faces of every single person in attendance. This unity, I feel compelled to add, was extended to the police force, and reciprocated by many of them too. I overheard many conversations between protesters and police officers. The police gave directions, said ‘hello’ and smiled at passing protesters, laughed at their signs – and I can also attest to apologies being offered at one stage, after an officer wearing riot gear had unintentionally barged into a young woman. He broke off from his colleagues to make sure she was all right. I am prepared to argue this point all day: the experience of thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands of people was an entirely enjoyable one.

I am not alone in sensing a responsibility to make this point. Mary Hamilton, a friend of mine and a fine journalist, made very similar points in her blog post published today.

I will not be so glib as to ignore the confrontations that obviously took place. Having read this morning that over thirty police officers had been injured by the end of the day, I was far more than disappointed: I was furious at the thought that a minority of idiots – whose behaviour can, I think, be described with some accuracy as ‘thick’ – had soiled the UK public’s perception of the day’s events. There was a palpable consciousness among many protesters that, were it not for their duties on the day, the Metropolitan Police might have joined in the march themselves. It seems evident to me that those few hundred idiots who took part in acts of violence are an utter insult to the few hundred thousand people who descended upon London.

I hope that my photographs, provided below, convey some of the atmosphere that I described at the beginning of this post. They will be far more representative of the day than anything you are likely to see in the national newspapers – and I believe you would find that almost any Metropolitan Police officer would concur.

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Not Even Peanuts

Last summer, I posted a blog questioning the “opaque” thinking of a manager within the hospitality industry, who invited me to provide photography for their new brochure, but didn’t see any reason to set aside money for the job. Instead, they offered me the opportunity to photograph future events at their venue. Again, unpaid – though I would be permitted to sell the images from the events.

On the grounds that, personally, I wouldn’t have the nerve to make such a convoluted and impudent request of any other business, I declined the “offer”. It isn’t as though I don’t ever offer my services voluntarily. It’s more related to the fact that I don’t remember ever having left a meeting feeling so insulted.

This instance was exceptional – what kind of moron were they looking for, who would accept payment in the form of further unpaid work? – but since that day I have been approached to offer my services voluntarily on a few occasions.

Where the circumstances are right, I don’t mind the occasional voluntary job. Neither do other people within the creative industries who have contacted me. I have learned, though, that the best way to go about it is to actually offer it to people, rather than accept offers that come in. The most important rule is to think very, very carefully before working voluntarily for another business.

Think about it. For any project, a budget will be set aside for most of the necessities. Here are some examples from my own experience: for an event, a budget was made available for a speaker, for venue hire, for drinks and refreshments – but not for a photographer. For a brochure, a budget was made available for design, for copywriting and for printing – but not for a photographer. For a website, a budget was made available for design, for copywriting, for hosting and even for search engine optimisation – but not for a photographer. Most people in the other creative industries will have been in similar situations.

I would like to know how we have arrived at the stage at which any business, with no sense of shame, can make the decision to leave a photographer out of the budget for a project, for which photography – and good photography, at that – is actually required. Or a designer – which also happens frequently. Or a copywriter. Or any creative. My aforementioned client actually said to my face that they saw “no need to set aside any money”, because they imagined that “quite a few photographers would be interested in doing the work.”

Well, if you must marginalise an entire industry like that, and you think it’s acceptable to do so, go ahead. I won’t bother to recommend you though. Why would I? I won’t bother to build up a rapport with you. Why would I? I won’t support your business. Why would I? You will get an unsightly reputation by continuing to ask people to do jobs for you – as I have said previously – for not even peanuts.

Most businesses are perfectly aware of the importance of publicity. The creative industries that provide so much material for it are disgracefully… Well, “undervalued” would be the wrong word. These people know exactly the worth, in the case of my industry, of good photography. I think it’s fair to say that they just don’t want to pay for it. The best that can be said of the situation is to describe it as “unfortunate”. Myself, I prefer to add “cynical” as well. Which is why I didn’t bother to say “hello” to the aforementioned manager the next time I saw them, a month or so later.

Why would I?

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A Plea!

Tomorrow, I begin shooting for my series of Norfolk portraits. Quite a task.

Within my sights I have an illustrator, a journalist, a deer herder, fishermen, farmers, a DJ, a lecturer… In short, around forty names, each of whom play an undeniably vital and dynamic role in giving Norfolk – in both urban and rural areas – the vibrant yet humble character that it has.

For this project, I am looking to photograph, amongst others, the pride of Norfolk’s artisans. I warmly invite recommendations of people from residents of the area. If you have any names for me to consider, please do get in touch (details below). This county, I frequently discover, is filled with all manner of talent – but perhaps it is just a trifle reticent about making others aware of it. As I have said before, in this post, my intention with this project is to show Norfolk in this light, encouraging people to take pride in what they do, whilst retaining the sense of normality that they value so highly.

You’ll find all of my contact details on my homepage:

http://www.ryanwattsphotos.co.uk

I suppose I should also mention that the project, at present, is being funded entirely by myself. I don’t mind continuing as it is, but clearly the project would be a good deal stronger for one or two donations, or suggestions as to how I might acquire some funding – particularly with an exhibition firmly in mind for 2012.

To raise a little bit of funding, I am offering print sales, the proceeds of which will be invested in the project. Do contact me if this interests you.

Finally – feel free to share this post with others. I am hard at work on my own research for the project, but clearly it will be all the stronger for the input of others. It’s a privilege to produce a body of work like this – I can’t wait to get my hands muddy tomorrow…

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