Editor’s note: London Calling is a conversation between photographers Andrew Hetherington and Chris Floyd about the state of the UK editorial photography market, originally published on Andrew’s popular blog What’s the Jackanory?. Part two of this piece is a Blueeyes Magazine exclusive and picks up weeks later with the fallout of the first post which quickly became explosive for, if nothing else, a photographer speaking honestly and without too much fear.
AH: What were your initial feelings when you first saw the conversation posted?
CF: Oh, I was thrilled. To have had the opportunity and, more importantly, the motivation to put into written form what had previously been a jumbled, spaghetti bowl of thoughts, growls and ponderings was something that I will always be happy about. As you said yourself, be careful because it will be out there forever!
AH: The post really took off quickly. Were you surprised?
CF: Kind of. I knew that a lot of people might see it because of the traffic you get on the Jackanory but I didn’t really expect it to generate as much buzz as it did. It had good opening weekend numbers. I knew that I had written something that was quite personal on a subject that’s very important to me and was the result of 15 years of experience boiled down to one admittedly long piece.
AH: You were inundated with emails and calls over the first couple of days, right?
CF: Oh, Lordy. About a hundred emails in two days all connected to what I had said. I replied to every one of them.
AH: So Chris, has there been any fall-out since the posting or has all the reaction been positive?
CF: It’s been almost entirely positive in a reassuringly depressive way. By that I mean that a lot of people got in touch to offer their own examples of incidents and anecdotes that serve as proof for some of the things I had talked about. It was also good to know that I was not alone — for me and for all of them, I think. There’s a quantum of solace in the editorial trenches that had previously been lacking.
AH: Some of your remarks may be seen by some to be quite incendiary and were perhaps misconstrued. I believe you were not singling out individuals but commenting on the state of the system. Photographers and editors both are suffering from constraints being placed on them in an ever-changing market place.
CF: Incendiary in what way? In the way that I expressed a certain set of opinions? What does it say about the way the world is that Rob Haggart (APE) has to be anonymous to say what he really thinks? That he has to leave his job to express his opinions openly? Apart form the odd dig at someone he worked with, he wasn’t ever saying anything that his paymasters needed to be afraid of. He always spoke fairly and honestly. What is wrong with that? We have sleep walked into the absolute subjugation of the individual to the corporation. I have started to think about one of the things that the internet has done regarding its role in the destruction of the traditional place of work. There are no factory gates to walk through anymore, which means that there is nothing to picket if there’s a grievance. The power of the individual to join a group has expanded exponentially in cyberspace but in the real world it’s almost non-existent. If you are an individual contributor these days you are propelled by a current of fear. If you don’t like the terrible terms you are offered and you say “Right! That’s it! I’m witholding my labor.” They can say “Fine. We’ll get someone else to do it.” Thanks to the huge oversupply of qualified photographic exponents that are being served on us by all those colleges. In conclusion, it is not a good time to be anything other than a huge corporate entity. And as individuals now, we exist to serve the needs of that corporate entity. Look at Facebook. What is that? It’s the commodification of human relationships in the service of “preferred media partners.” As individuals we may do very nicely from that arrangement but collectively, as human beings, I don’t think that’s a good place for the species to be. And don’t even call me a socialist. I’d call myself a humanist.
AH: I believe you have had a lot of conversations with UK photo editors following the post. Can you tell us what came of this dialogue? I can imagine a lot were upset by your remarks.
CF: Some of the photo editors misconstrued some of the things I had said about their profession. What I had thought I’d said, or tried to say, was that the institutional attitude of publishers in the UK, to photography and by extension photo editors, photographers, design and the visual experience, has rendered them impotent. No love, no money, no resources and no respect from the publishers. Despite this, all of the photo people I work with and for are all excellent and capable professionals who love photography and also like photographers. Some of those people had taken me to mean that I was actually running them down and disrespecting their capabilities and enthusiasms. This was not the case at all. It was only ever the lowest common denominator attitude of the publishers that I was going on about. The people who pay us all. However, if you work in an environment that ultimately doesn’t really love or value what you are there to do then eventually you are going to get worn down by it. And some of the people I know in that position have been worn down by it, to the point that they can’t commit anymore of themselves to it because, like an unloved spouse, they don’t get no lovin’ back. A photo department at any of the major mags here will have no more than three people operating it. One of those will be an intern. If these were their American counterparts there would be what, six, eight people? Plus a couple of interns. The people here don’t have the time or the money to allow them the space to THINK about it. There’s no thinking time. When I do a job here, I hand in the shoot and I hear nothing, nada, until someone calls to order their edit. And when they do they’ll need it within 24 hours. How can anyone - photographer, photo editor, designer - produce work of the highest caliber under those conditions? Anyway, I just want to throw all my love out to all those who were angry at me. XoXoXo.
AH: I noticed on my site tracker that the News International Times supplement department were sniffing around the post. Are you worried that your remarks might or have cost you work?
CF: Ooh…good one. Of course, it crosses my mind. But I believe that what I said was the truth. And as I said earlier, the responses I got back that up. I didn’t say those things to piss people off. I did it so as to wake people up and say look, we are, all of us, complicit in the way this industry is going. Now we might not hold any real power, financially or in the general direction of the ship, and I’m not even sure of how we might be able to change anything to be honest. That’s a job for someone else. I am merely an individual contributor to printed publications. But I was brought up to question things and speak out if I found those things to be questionable. And I do. I think the people we work for can do better. They can create a better product and if they thought about how to make a version of their product that was superior in some ways to what they are most scared of, stuff for free on the internet, then there might be a future in it for them. But hauling in punters off the street and forming focus groups is not going to make that happen. The secret is not necessarily to give people what they want but to give people what they didn’t know they wanted. That takes a certain type of genius and individual. The irony is that considering we live in this society that politically venerates the individual, we have corporations that don’t know what to do with a good one when they find it. As Henry Ford said, “If I had listened to all the people who told me what they wanted I would have built a faster horse.” Gotta follow your own heart and your own mind and be prepared to face any and all consequences.
AH: I admire the way you went out and commented on all the other blogs that featured the post and offered their own thoughts. This gave you a chance to clear up some misconceptions. I think one of the biggest ones was that in no way did you mean that all the UK photography talent was London based. I felt for that kid in Leeds though.
CF: No, no, no! Not at all. I was talking about the power of London with regard to it being the place you have to go to if you want to work for magazines. Yep, the guy in Leeds killed me with his comment and it’s for people like him that I spoke in the first place. Although I am personally doing quite well, the future is not bright for photographers of my type.
< Some may perceive you to be a little bitter, big-headed, self-absorbed, or even depressing. I believe your father is rather concerned about your dire pessimism. Care to comment?
CF: Certainly not bitter. Big-headed? What have I got to be big-headed about? How can I be big-headed when I see the work of people like Larry Fink, Dan Winters, Nadav Kander? That’s ridiculous. Incidentally, did you see Ryan McGinley’s New York Times Oscar portfolio? That was awesome. He just served notice on the Liebowitz generation in that department. Always loved that guy’s work.
Anyway, as I said, my own situation is as good as it’s ever been. However, I have a sense of communality and I want there to be a future for people like me. I remember when I was an assistant it meant so much to even get the chance to meet with a photographer. One in fifty would take the trouble to see me and when they did I was so grateful. If anything, I am angry. Angry at the fact that mediocrity seems to win out most of the time. Angry that people are afraid so much of the time and that there is this safe culture that will put bland inoffensiveness ahead of everything else, in the context of not alienating the advertisers. If people are calling me arrogant then they have never met me and don’t know me. Do you think I’m arrogant? How can I answer that question without sounding arrogant? To do this job well, to be a proper portraitist, you have to surrender your ego, so that others may be allowed to keep theirs. As for all the other stuff you mention, the Q+A I did with you was the culmination of a few years of thoughts all compressed into one mental polemic. I’m not thinking about this stuff every day. I’m taking my daughter to the park, separating out my recycling rubbish, sorting out the car, working, watching television, reading the paper, thinking about lunch, thinking about my holiday to France in the summer, trying to organize how I can get time with my friends and keep my family happy. In fact, if you came and hung out with me you might like it. Ask any of my assistants; I never shout and I never lose my temper. I’m always as polite as I can be and I hold doors open for everyone I get the chance to hold doors open for. I also let a lot of other cars out at road junctions and when people let me out I always raise my hand in acknowledgement. I was brought up properly, and by that I mean that I was brought up to think of others before myself. Look at my pictures. Do those people look like they’re dying to leave? My grandfather had a great phrase to describe anyone he didn’t like: “The kind of bloke who could light up a room by leaving it.” That’s all I’ve ever tried to do — not be that bloke.
My dad just doesn’t like to hear negative thoughts from his family. We have a lot of similarities in temperament and I think he worries that if left unchecked I might drift towards some of his more downbeat tendencies. In an email he wrote to me was this sentence: “I know only too well how damaging a pessimistic outlook can be and how many years it can steal if it is allowed to be pervasive.” I don’t see it as pessimism though. I just see it as calling time on the truth and I do it with energy and motivation. I am not going to be deflated by all these massive, soulless, humorless, greedy, joyless, clueless, monolithic and ultimately destructive bureaucracies. They are killing what it means to be human and to be creative in the name of the fucking share price. The irony is that it was my dad who most drummed it into me to call things into question when one deems it to be necessary. To not necessarily accept things as they seem or as they are presented. I’ll leave it there, suffice to say that I’m a great believer in ‘better out than in’ and that’s possibly where we differ the most. But it’s his respect and approval that I crave the most and if we were ever to fall out I would regret it forever.
AH: Any word from Martin Parr? Asperger’s is quite the rage now. I see articles all over on it? Did you catch him in any of that “Picture This” series on Channel Four?
CF: No word from the Parrster. I did see one of those shows. The last one. The finale. It was enough. I thought he was the best thing in it though.