HMS The Still Image was a fine vessel in her day, safely conveying a select group of passengers to ports stocked with bountiful produce. To board her you had to be in the photographic elite but once you had a ticket, you’d be well looked after, your images respected, valued and capable of providing a healthy living. And then, one day, the omnipresent sun disappeared behind a cloud and a few stowaways sneaked onto The Still Image (I was one of them). And then a few more and a few more. The gallant vessel ploughed on but now more slowly, burdened as she was with extra passengers. As word got around, more and more piled on – a few with valid tickets but many simply lured by the tenuous promise of an easy passage to an easy career in a photographic Shangri-la. The storm clouds gathered and the once spacious, comfortable cabins were now packed full with hungry, ambitious and in some cases, unscrupulous, photographers. They all wanted a slice of the action and who could blame them? With limited space and dwindling supplies, passengers started to squabble like fractious children, like vultures fighting over a rotting carcass.
And so here am I today sitting astride the prow of The Still Image watching the water rise and pondering. The lifeboats have been launched and photographers everywhere are scrambling to save themselves as The Still Image slowly sinks under its own weight. The days of plenty are no more. The promise of a sun-kissed utopian life with a camera in hand is an empty one. The photographic elite have been consumed by a voracious swarm of ‘award-winning’ fresh talent and face a future of uncertainty that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
On the horizon is a distant land, unknown, unchartered. The lifeboat has one more space but even if I jump in, where will it take me? Back to port with all the others and the inevitability of more infighting? The distant island looks tempting, a risk yes but one worth taking? I know that I’m not alone on that prow. Many photographers I speak to today see uncertainty ahead of them. Who is the audience for my images? What do they want from me? How much are they willing to pay? I’ve not heard too many convincing answers to any of these questions. There’s no doubt that demand for visual imagery is still high but competition has seen prices plummet and petty one-upmanship become commonplace. It’s difficult to retain dignity faced with an empty dinner table.
So what of that distant island? Will the innovators, the pioneers, the storytellers, turn their backs on the lifeboat and strike out in a fresh direction; build a new life founded on a new product or service? I hope so. The seas might be infested with sharks but surely better run that gauntlet than face a slow, painful demise scrapping over that rotting carcass.