Photography, Specialisation and Do You Need To?
I recently wrote an article concerning the importance of documenting passions outside of a passion for photography. A photographer responded to the article by stating that although he agreed with my general assertions he questioned the need for specialisation within a photographic practice. After all he said isn’t all photography just photography! Well, yes perhaps from the photographer’s perspective but to truly understand the world of professional commissioned photography it is essential to accept that the photographer’s role in any commissioned assignment is that of the visual problem solver.
The cold hard fact of commissioning is that the commissioner is rarely if ever going to ask a photographer to create pictures outside of an area of specialisation. In fact, they are most likely to ask you to take a picture you have taken before! Why? Because it is that which has drawn them to your work and given them confidence that you can do what they need you to do.
Never forget the pressures the commissioner feels when spending their budget on the creation of something they have little or no control over. To do this requires confidence and in an increasingly fragile economic climate there is often little or no space for ‘mistakes’. This situation creates an overly safe commissioning environment and restrictive shoot briefs but even within such an environment it is possible to retain a personal visual language.
When art directing a magazine many years ago a photographer approached me to shoot food photography for the title. He showed me his portfolio that contained no food based images and seemed shocked that I would not consider him as a serious food photographer. At the time, I was working with the best food photographers in the country who had devoted their lives to the art and yet he felt that he would be just as good if I just gave him a chance. He may well have been right but why should I as the commissioner take that risk?
That was at a time when it was possible to take more risks than it is today and yet that was too great a risk for me to take. At the end of the day the commissioner is answerable to their managers and their reputation is on the line with every choice of photographer they make.
It is the photographer’s responsibility to instil confidence into the commissioner in their work and ability to deliver, not the commissioner’s responsibility to continually take risks based upon belief rather than reality.
I often hear photographers complain that certain magazines, photo editors, art directors and art buyers only work with the same photographers and this is true. However, it is possible to break into those cabals with work that meets the requirements and aspirations of those responsible for commissioning. So, there it is a straight forward logic to developing an area of specialisation with your work. A master of one trade rather than a jack of all, but there is also a creative reason for focusing on an area of specialisation.
I have never met a music photographer that doesn’t enjoy music, a skateboard photographer that doesn’t skate, a food photographer that doesn’t love food, a fashion photographer that isn’t involved in the world of fashion. I could go on but I hope you see where I am going with this. By using photography as a medium to document your passion you are the expert not only in the medium of photography but also of the subject you are documenting. You know how to make a band look good and how the music industry works, you know when a trick is right or wrong, how to make food look appetising and how to keep a fashion editor and designer contented with how you photograph their designs.
Specialisation is not restrictive it is a stepping stone to the creation of a personal visual language and commissionable body of work. I often hear photographers working outside of the commissioned environment claiming that they do so because they do not want to lose their own personal vision to the client. To make such a statement is to misunderstand the majority of commissioned work where the client is more than willing to buy into the work the photographer is creating whether that be commissioned or personal. If the work they see is within the area of work they commission.
The next time you approach someone to show them your portfolio or website ask yourself if the person you are meeting commissions the kind of work you create and if your areas of specialisations correspond with each other. If they do all should be well, if not you might like to reconsider that meeting and whether you understand your role in the photographer/client relationship.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.
You can follow the progress of his documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay at donotbendfilm.com.
You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.
Text © Grant Scott 2017